In 2010, the University of Missouri Student Unions completed a $65 million student center expansion and renovation project. A 2005 student referendum laid the foundation for the building that exists today. Over the years, thousands of students shared their input and vision for what the building might look like and how it would be used. The guiding principles for the project derived from students who asked for a building that was “uniquely Mizzou,” which embodied the spirit and traditions of the University of Missouri. The project mantra—Pride, Spirit, and Tradition—guided all aspects of the design process. Our mission was that, located within the limestone walls of the MU Student Center, every alumnus could find a piece of his or her own college experience.
Once open, students, faculty, staff, and guests found a place that can only be described as truly unique to the University of Missouri. Paul Orban noted in the January 2015 issue of University Business, “As campus leaders look for ways to leverage their resources and still accomplish their enrollment and growth goals, one viable strategy is to recognize the role that physical facilities have on student attraction and retention.” The emphasis on promoting the Mizzou brand was overtly intentional, both in the facility design and within our institutionally operated campus store. We believe that a visibly strong and consistent campus brand will play an important role in student FTE growth, as well as alumni affinity. Nearly 19,000 visitors pass through the MU Student Center each day with four million visitors in the last fiscal year. Building tenants have experienced increased sales and foot traffic. Sales in our self-operated and self-branded food venues set records in the first year of operation, realizing a 28 percent increase in retail food sales and a 42 percent increase in convenience store sales. The newly branded campus bookstore, replete with Mizzou-themed décor, continues to benefit from its location in the student center. A comparison of insignia sales (licensed apparel and gifts) in the last four years of the old facility to the first four years in the new facility demonstrates a 53 percent increase. Customer accounts at the contracted on-sight bank increased by 134 percent. Much of this success can be attributed to embracing the three words of pride, spirit, and tradition throughout the facility and within our auxiliary operations.
Articulating A Vision
The project began with an aspiration to create a student center that would reinforce the institutional brand and strengthen the sense of community on our campus. As the center of campus life, we wanted the new building to tell the story of the Mizzou student experience. During the design phase, we asked: How do you make a new facility seem as though it has always been part of the campus landscape? Once you build it, how do you make that building relevant or meaningful to alumni who have never experienced it as their student center? Feedback from focus groups, surveys, and an alumni advisory committee reinforced the need for the building to convey an array of ideas, events, and imagery associated with university history and traditions. Our challenge, then, was to translate individual and communal experiences into a physical space that would attract and engage prospective, current, and former students. How did we do this?
Establish Non-negotiable Design Elements
In focus groups, students stated that they wanted a traditional looking building with modern amenities; early renderings with ultra-modern exteriors received negative student feedback. A rough limestone façade was an obvious choice for the new center, as it complemented surrounding architecture. The use of limestone provided one of our best marketing stories. Early in the project, we were given the choice between Kansas and Iowa as Midwestern sources of stone. Weber Stone Company, Inc., in Anamosa, Iowa, was selected as the sole source provider of the stone. This was one of the easiest decisions in the overall construction project—because as our student president said “no self-respecting Tiger at the State’s flagship university would be caught hanging out in a student center made of Kansas (our then rival) Jayhawk rock!”
Selecting the exterior façade was easy but selecting interior finishes that represented the university brand proved far more challenging. Our request for black and gold finishes met with initial resistance from our consultants. Did we really want 250,000 sq. ft. of tiger stripes? Absolutely! Yes…well, sort of. Alumnus Wendy Gray of Gray Design Group in St. Louis, Mo., and our own interior designers scoured the world in search of everything black and gold. They went beyond the obvious pantones to collect an amazing combination of both subtle and bold tributes to our school colors and our tiger mascot. Splashes of color help create visual interest but the predominant theme is clearly Mizzou.
Identify Special Places
Throughout the project, we promised our alumni that they would find a part of their campus experience within the walls of the new building. As Ronald Lee Fleming stated in The Art of Placemaking, “For most people, it is probably not the architecture that turns a physical locale into a well-loved place; it is more often the remembrance of human interaction that helps us to claim it.”
We asked our alumni to tell us about cherished memories of student life and sought to incorporate these recollections into very specific areas that celebrated campus history and tradition. The most exciting and ultimately rewarding space involved recreating “the Shack”—a beloved off-campus hangout. A true shack in every sense of the term, the Shack was viewed as a nefarious hangout from the 1920s through the 1980s by university administration. Students, however, loved the Shack and its reputation and “green door” (made famous by the 1950s hit single “Behind the Green Door” by Jim Lowe) has transcended time and has been reborn in the new facility, replete with Shack artifacts (actual booths), as well as photos and articles. Today, students can experience the Shack history and even carve their names on the walls of the shack, just like their parents and grandparents did before them. The area also includes a tribute to Mort Walker (BA ’48), creator of the popular cartoon strip Beetle Bailey. Original comic strips, donated by Mr. Walker, depicting campus life during the 1940s and 1950s adorn the walls adjacent to the life-size statue of a collegiate Beetle Bailey.
Celebrate The Student Experience Visually
Telling the Mizzou story became an obsession for our staff, who spent hours gathering photos and data. Strategic reuse and repurposing of artifacts and images helped create an environment that connected past, present and, hopefully, future generations of Mizzou students. An alumni advisory group made recommendations for the Mizzou Traditions Lounge, which features a color wall mural of our iconic traditions, including Homecoming. Artifacts and photographs from Mizzou’s history are displayed throughout the lounge, as well as gone-but-not-forgotten traditions from our past. A partnership with University Archives and Mizzou Athletics provides access to borrow artifacts and photographic reproductions for exhibit in museum quality cases. Other areas display the names of past student leaders, honorary societies, and the history of the university’s logos.
Success And The Bottom Line
Qualitative data suggests the new spirited facility contributes to the growth in student FTE as well as student satisfaction with the University of Missouri. A 2011 Leisure Vision/ETC Institute found that MU Student Center is the most used building on campus. The student center was cited as the second “most important facility to students’ enjoyment of the university.” In addition to strengthening positive student and alumni experiences, strong brand management also contributed to a growth in sales, as demonstrated in the earlier examples. Our auxiliary enterprises (student unions, campus stores, dining services, recreation centers, and residential life) are key contributors in how the Mizzou brand is perceived in the market. Cost, satisfaction, experience, and product relationship to our campus brand, traditions, and emotional connections are critical ingredients to cultivate healthy auxiliary enterprises.
Founded on the principles of pride, spirit, and tradition, the MU Student Center serves as a major campus destination for admissions visits and campus tours, as well as community and alumni visitors. The facility and the products and programs within that promote the campus brand are essential components in a concerted university effort to attract and retain students. A vibrant gathering space that blends past, present, and future, the MU Student Center is a place where students work, learn, and socialize; a first stop where prospective students can experience campus history and envision their own potential; and a destination where alumni can come home to find a small piece of their own Mizzou experience.
MU Student Center At A Glance
- 48,000 square feet of public lounge/study space; 2,000 seats, 12 meeting/conference rooms, several fireplaces, study rooms, and multiple outdoor seating and programming areas.
- Office and cubicle space for Mizzou’s 700-plus student organizations, Greek Life, student governments, campus activities, social justice and wellness programs, and student media.
- Bank and ATMs
- Box office
- Bike Sharing Program plus air pumps and bike fix-it stations
- Campus bookstore and tech store
- CarShare program
- Copy center and convenience store
- Dry cleaning and laundry drop-off service
- Family-friendly services: gender neutral restroom, infant changing stations, and lactation stations
- Self-branded food venues (pizza/Italian, burgers, wraps, BBQ, coffee)
- Laptop checkout program and phone charging stations (free)
- Pool, games, and equipment checkout
- US Post Office/UPS shipping
- Vending machines
- Student entrepreneurial retail spaces
Five things to consider
Keys to effective brand management
Creative director Paul Biedermann defined “brand” as the essence of one’s own unique story. This is apropos to higher education, where the university brand should tell a unique story that unifies past, present, and future. Brand is about perception—what others think about the university. Ideally, the brand evokes an action: attraction, devotion, allegiance, and ultimately, support.
MU Student Center
To create a dynamic and inviting environment unique to Mizzou where any student, regardless of when they graduated, will find a part of their Mizzou experience.
- Understand your brand experience. Your college’s core brand reflects the values that are the foundation of your institution. Develop relationships with students, campus stakeholders, and alumni and engage them in identifying key brand attributes such as traditions, history, and symbols that convey the essence of individual and group experiences at the university.
- Connect emotionally. Visually celebrate your unique campus experiences and traditions. There’s a new crop of excited students who arrive at campus each year and you can play role in educating them about campus identity and traditions. Search for old photographs, memorabilia—anything that tells a story about events and alumni who have come before. Honor old traditions and create new ones. Thanks to alumnus Mort Walker, we were able to engage a new generation of students with the Mizzou Beetle Bailey. This includes imagery in the student center, as well as retail sales of shirts of other items.
- Create excitement and ignite your campus passion! Partner with campus stakeholders to ensure consistent use of school colors, logos, and marks. Use this imagery strategically throughout the facility to promote pride and energize campus life. Our interior designers used phrases like “over the top” when covering 210,000 square feet of black and gold. The contribution to student satisfaction and increased enrollment has great potential.
- Deliver on promises. Any brand must drive its product category(s) forward in continually providing relevance and benefits for its stakeholders. This becomes multi-faceted when considering promoting your campus brand (academics, athletics, and auxiliary services). By innovating and continually improving the ways in which consumers experience and derive value, you strengthen your brand and bottom line.
- Create lifelong brand advocates. Never stop finding new ways to make the connection between your students and your campus. Be innovative, creative, and flexible in how you communicate brand attributes to different life stages. Students and alumni are proud of their accomplishments and career pursuits, and they are the greatest advocates for your university.