The University of Michigan’s dining program is caught up in a culinary arms race with nearby restaurants in booming Ann Arbor, Mich.—mentioned among Bon Appetit’s Foodiest Small Towns in America. As part of meeting its guests’ increasingly sophisticated palates and competing with the town’s culinary offerings, Michigan Dining refreshed its brand. Here are some of the lessons they learned along the way.
1. Make sure you have backup
Before spending the resources and energy rolling out a sleek new brand, it’s important to install a structure that can make good on that brand’s mission and promises. “You can’t decide you are going to be a new company with the same players and attitude,” says Steve Mangan, Michigan Dining director. Building in the capability and capacity with the right team and processes is essential, Mangan says.
2. Find yourself
Michigan dining spent at least six months determining its mission, principles and the type of organization it wanted to be. Mangan’s team conducted internal interviews with all levels of the dining team to uncover their motivations, frustrations and opportunities for the brand. “You need to talk to your own people,” says Dan Henne, director of marketing for the school’s Student Life Auxiliaries and a central member of the rebranding team. But don’t just toss these insights after the rebrand. Mangan says the input will fuel how the program will evolve in the future.
3. Scout the competition
It’s not enough just to know your brand’s strengths and weaknesses. Take a look at what your competition is missing, says Henne. “Then, look at what you can leverage given your resources,” he says. Michigan Dining has size on its side, feeding around 25,000 meals a day. It can influence local suppliers to acquire certifications to suit their sustainable mission and help mold the regional market.
4. Know your audience
While it's important to think about the demographic you're trying to engage, be authentic in the interactive aspects of your branding, such as social media. "We can't try to pretend like we're them," says Kate Glahn, the marketing communications specialist for Student Life Auxiliaries heading up dining's social presence. "We look to make fun of our own voice. Say, 'Yeah, we're the gooofy grown ups.' Otherwise, it doesn't ring true."