What To Call UB: SUNY Buffalo's Identity Crisis

The UB basketball team’s NCAA berth last month gave UB athletics some nice local limelight.  But it may have also been the first exposure many casual Buffalo Sports fans have had to the change in UB’s athletic branding that started two years ago.  For those who don’t know, I’ll bring you briefly up to speed.  For most of its history, UB athletic uniforms have been branded with “UB.”  Or, barring that, “Buffalo.”  But, as many noticed when UB took the floor for the NCAA tournament, the current uniforms appear to say just “New York.”  What happened to Buffalo, our fair city that the school is located in?  Well, it is there if you look closely.

Technically, all the uniforms are now branded with UB’s legal name, “State University of New York Buffalo.” Only the words “New York” are in big bold letters with the rest in small font above and below.  This change is part of Athletic Director Danny White’s somewhat controversial “New York Bulls” initiative, itself a symptom of another program: UB 2020.  It would be folly for me to try to convince anyone that this change is good or bad, but there has been a lot of bluster recently over just that argument. So I think it may be good to step back and take a look at both sides of the issue.

Not just the athletic department, but UB as an institution has had some difficulty pinning down its identity recently.  But it’s something the school is actively working on.  A survey recently went out to UB Alumni.  Among the questions was “which of the following names have you used in referencing the University at Buffalo […]?”  This survey is one of the beginning steps in a study being conducted by Ologie, a branding firm from Columbus, Ohio and Marshall Strategy out of San Francisco, whom UB recently gave $314,000 to to come up with ways for UB to improve it’s brand identity and name recognition.

When reading the entire survey, one notices that UB wants to compare itself to two groups: other large SUNY schools and other large public research Universities in the Northeast/Midwest.  Part of the UB 2020 initiative is to increase UB’s enrollment by approximately 10,000 students.  Assuming the success of the program, this would push UB to about 40,000 students, making one of the 25 largest Universities in the U.S.  Large public research universities like Ohio State, the University of Michigan, and Penn State dominate the lists of schools with head counts of this size.  UB sees itself as peers to these kinds of institutions, and the goal of truly joining them in size, prestige, and of course branding, is what is driving the recent changes to the school.

As UB moves forward with UB 2020 and the New York Bulls initiatives, the school’s messaging has continually referred to itself as the “flagship” school of the SUNY system.  Aside from population (UB is the largest of the SUNY schools), Danny White has a few particular talking points he likes to return to when he discusses his branding initiative.  The first is that UB is a member of the Association of American Universities.  Despite its extremely generic name, the Association of American Universities is an extremely prestigious group that designates schools with the highest level of academic research and scholarship.   UB and Stony Brook University are the only public schools in New York to have membership.  White adds to this that UB competes at a higher level than any other SUNY school athletically, and in fact UB is the only SUNY to compete in the D-I FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision).  When talking about expanding UB’s athletic reputation and performance, he points to the fact that UB is the only University with the combination of an AAU membership and D-I FBS that doesn’t belong to one of the major conferences.  Therefore, he believes UB is performing below its potential as an athletic brand.  It is from this place that White has orchestrated the New York Bulls strategy as a way to increase the national recognition of the University.

However, there are many for whom the new emphasis on the New York part of UB’s name does not sit well.  Locally, this includes those who care about the loss of the old branding and the identity that it stood for.  For them, it has to do with pride in the Buffalo name.  UB has long been a showpiece for Buffalo as a city.  When you’re proud of Buffalo itself, it is important to you that UB be representative of the city.  When the spotlight is on UB, it’s on Buffalo.  That is lost when the emphasis is on the state as a whole, and the hit is made more egregious by the fact that many on the national level will likely assume that New York means New York City.  Buffalo already has trouble enough avoiding NYC’s shadow without getting rid of the Buffalo name from the State’s largest public University.  The other part of the loss is for those who are alumni of the old branding.  UB has been a University since 1846, but it has only been part of SUNY since 1962 and there are many graduates who don’t want to see their heritage swallowed any more than it already has been by the New York State system.  Theirs is an objection to a perceived loss of tradition.

The second group who would object to UB as the de facto “New York University” is the membership of the other major SUNY schools.  As already mentioned, Stony Brook University is also an AAU member and while they compete in D-I FCS instead of FBS, the subdivision is only for football.  For all other sports, D-I is D-I.  Additionally, Stony Brook's 23,000 students to UB’s 29,000 is certainly close enough to take offense at UB branding itself the “flagship” SUNY and the biggest, best, public University in the State.  Considering many “flagship” universities are also the oldest in their system, the University of Albany might also be a bit offended since they were the original SUNY and are the oldest University in the system.  Plus, their basketball team has more NCAA tournament appearances than UB, who just made their first appearance last month.  UB’s branding is the equivalent of UB saying to all the other SUNY schools, “I’m better than you.”  Considering that both SUNY Binghamton and Stony Brook both rated higher than UB in the most recent U.S. News & World Report ranking, there are at least reasons to think proclaiming UB the “flagship” is a bit presumptuous.

When it comes to looking to the future of UB’s branding, the school may not be the clear premier University in the SUNY system now, but it is clear with the ambition of UB 2020 that UB plans to widen the gap.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I am an alumnus of the school and in that spirit, I appreciate the desire to use the greater “New York” name recognition over the “Buffalo” emphasis.  It is a recruiting and marketing tool.  At the same time, because the SUNY system is set up so differently from many other state systems, it is much less clear how to differentiate the schools without intentionally or unintentionally marginalizing the other schools.  And unlike, for example, the distinction between Michigan State and the University of Michigan or Arizona State and the University of Arizona, the New York name doesn’t fit as well into that kind of nomenclature.  There is also inconveniently the quite well known private New York University (NYU) in New York City to sort out as well.  Only time will tell how effective the “New York Bulls” and UB 2020 will be in expanding and marketing the school, but this much is clear: to make progress, some of the past will be left behind.  Whether that “progress,” i.e. expansion should be done at all is a question for another time, but for it to be successful, UB will have to reposition is brand and grow its athletics.  All I can do is wish Ologie and Marshall Strategy luck in figuring out how to do that without upsetting anybody.