Marketing Michigan: The evolution of the block ‘M’

Illustration by Amy Mackens
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By Austen Hufford, Online Editor
Published October 20, 2014

It rises above Michigan Stadium, a greeting to Ann Arbor. It’s flying on the top of the Michigan Union, reminding alumni that they’ve made it back. It’s ingrained in the center of both Diags for students to tread underfoot every day. It’s painted on the University Health System’s heliport, welcoming patients and doctors alike. It’s chalked in unique places all over campus, a surprise for those who look. And it’s always carried around by countless members of the University community on their clothes, phone cases and keychains. It’s the block ‘M.’

More than 100 years ago, during the homecoming football game on Nov. 16, 1907, thousands of blue and yellow flags were raised in unison by the University's student body to form one of the first ever block ‘M’s.’ Today, this logo, essentially unchanged, remains the lasting symbol of the University of Michigan.

While the block ‘M’ now represents the entire University, including its hundreds of units, departments and schools, for most of the past century, this was anything but true. It has been only over the last two years that the block ‘M’ has become the official logo for almost every part of the large and disparate University.

The block ‘M,’ a short history

One of the earliest examples of a solitary letter M being used to represent Michigan is in the 1888 football team photo. By 1891, the team’s uniform features a block M very similar to the one used today. In 1897, the University’s Athletic Association released a button, exclusively for its members, which featured the block ‘M.’


Football Team 1891

Courtesy of Bentley Historical LibraryThe 1891 Football team's uniform featured one of the first examples of the modern day block 'M'

In the early 20th century, Michigan pride was high as the football team won four straight national championships between 1901 and 1904. People wanted to buy Michigan apparel, including pins, which were popular at the time. However, the traditional block ‘M’ was hard to find off the football field.

An ad in the 1903 Michiganensian, the University’s official yearbook, shows popular pin designs of the day. There are “Michigan” flag-shaped pins of all shapes and multiple designs with “U of M.” There is only a single letter-M design, one which sets a letter on a diamond-shaped background. A long text ad in an 1898 publication called “The Michigan book,” which details the history of the University, states “Some of them (pins), have a square back-ground of blue with the letter M appearing there in yellow.” Nowhere else is any sort of solitary M mentioned, even though the book has many logos and insignias for student organizations and classes.

On Nov. 17, 1907, The Michigan Daily reported that the previous day, the aforementioned thousands of flags were used to form an M. The Daily wrote,“Probably no more beautiful feature was ever seen at a football game than the block ‘M’ section. At a signal from the yellmaster, the black mass of humanity in the bleachers suddenly became transformed as though by magic touch, into a gigantic ‘M’ outlined against a background of blue.”

An undated black and white photo in the 1908 Michiganensian, appears to capture the scene. A section of the crowd at Ferry Field is shown creating the exact same block ‘M’ used today, more than a century later. Today, Michigan stadium features a Block M painted over hundreds of seats at the 50 yard line, a throwback to 1907.


A photo of surgery.

Michiganensian 1907During the 1907 Michigan Football season, fans held up flags to create a large block 'M' in the stands.

In the 1909 Michiganensian, there is an advertisement for “Plain Solid Gold block ‘M’ pins,” for $3. In 1912 it was common practice to form a human block ‘M’ for photos at events, such as at the “junior hop” dance. Around the same time female senior athletes during the third annual field day “opened the festivities by marching in double line, forming a block ‘M.’”

In just a few short years, the block ‘M’ emerged from a football game show of support to become a symbol used around campus to represent the University. In 1948, the block ‘M’ was present in the official Michigan Athletics logo and by 1964 it was the largest part of the logo. It took a forward-looking athletic director, however, to truly put the logo in the hands of fans.

Selling the M

Don Canham was the University’s athletic director from 1968-88, most known for improving the department’s financial stability by using controversial marketing techniques to increase attendance and selling everything from parking passes to Michigan purses. Under his tenure, average attendance at The Big House football games jumped from 67,000 to more than 100,000. Since 1975, there have been more than 100,000 fans at every game.

Canham essentially began the monetization of college sports, according to a 1975 Sports Illustrated profile of him. Canham helped expand the Michigan brand and licensed it in ways that wasn’t seen before in college athletics.

In a 2004 Michigan Daily interview, he said the first items were pieces of merchandise were designed right in his house. “We designed 20 or 30 different things. We did that all on my kitchen table... Sports Illustrated wrote an article on what we were doing and everybody started copying.”

The Sports Illustrated article featured a photo of Canham posing over many new types of merchandise. The University first applied to register the block ‘M’ as a trademark in 1982, under Canham’s tenure. The items not only subsidized athletics but they also served as a way to embed Wolverine ornamentation and the block ‘M’ into homes around the world.


M Den

Ruby Wallau/DailyStores like the M Den feature thousands of items with University branding.

Over the next 30 years, the Michigan brand continued to grow. The block ‘M’ grew in the minds of the public as the popularity of college sports soared in America and athletic departments profited from lucrative television deals.

But while the general public and the University community associated the block ‘M’ with Michigan, the University itself hardly used the logo until the 21st century — the block ‘M’ was only the logo for sports. The University’s website showed only the academic seal until 2002.

Some parts of the University also didn’t fully embrace using the logo. “The block ‘M’ was mostly attributed to athletics,” said Lisa Rudgers, vice president for global communications and strategic initiatives, at a 2013 Communications Advisory Committee meeting. “Some at U-M were hesitant to use it.”

“We didn’t always use that ridiculously well known and fascinating block ‘M,’ ” said Dave Brudon, Director of Marketing at the University Health System.

Until UMHS was created in 1997, even departments within today’s UMHS had vastly different logos and marketing methods.

“From my perspective, they all had their own brand identity,” Brudon said.

Eventually Michigan’s numerous independent units started to realize the benefits of incorporating the recognizable block ‘M’ in their own logos. Many units hired designers and craft new logos all with a different take on the block M.

While these new logos were more exciting than the original seals, there was no consistency or unified brand-image. There were vastly different colors for different logos and block ‘M’s’ were commonly distorted and changed.

Steve Busch, brand manager for the University, said this process continued up until just a few years ago, creating a hodgepodge of visual identifiers for the University.

“Our brand presence was very emblematic of a decentralized institution that it represents. We had logos and branding for sub units inside of units inside of units,” He said. “It was really doing a disservice to the strength of the block ‘M.’ ”

It went deeper than just different marketing materials throughout the University. Units had completely different ways of explaining the University.

“Several years ago if you asked what makes Michigan, Michigan, you probably would have got a dozen different answers from ten different people,” said Tom Szczepanski, assistant vice president for Development at the University.

Unifying the M

University administrators thought something had to be done. In 2011, a brand study was completed, which paved the way for a complete standardization of all University logos by 2014. For the first time in its modern history, every part of the University would have consistent branding.

Many peer institutions continue to have distinct academic and athletic brand identities. Michigan is one of the few who now has a unified brand.

In 2013, the University refreshed the block ‘M’ and created strict imaging guidelines so that the logo would always stand alone with the same colors, proportions and feel. The new logo is a maize block ‘M,’ on a field of blue with the propriety Victors font spelling out “University of Michigan.” with a way to create literally thousands of “brand signatures” all with the same imaging guidelines. According to Busch, there is only one University logo but a nearly endless number of signatures which identify individual parts of the University. For example the University Hospital System, the School of Social Work and University Libraries all need to have distinct, but relatable, brand images. The designs would display how all units are part of the larger University.

The system they chose was a formula for creating custom identifiers for distinct units. It’s like a Swiss army knife — the system is designed to be flexible so that campuses, colleges, and small institutes can all use it to suit their needs.

The online self-service system is almost completely automated. Any part of the University that needs to update its branding can use the system and receive a distinct brand signature within days. According to Busch the system has generated signatures for more than 2,500 parts of the University over the last 18 months. He said buy-in has been good and that upwards of 85 percent of the University’s units have already made the switch to the unified branding. And while having a consistent logo is the first step, being able to have a consistent marketing message is much more complicated.

What is Michigan

At the same time as the new logo was being developed the Office of the Vice President for Global Communications came up with brand pillars to define what Michigan means.

Szczepanski said the message essentially boils down to the idea of “prestige for the public good.” According to the brand guidelines, Michigan’s uniqueness comes from its combination of academic excellence, public mission and long heritage.

The brand study reported that while Michigan had a good reputation, the University should be doing more to promote itself confidently. According to Busch, all parts of the University should be giving out similar messages.

“These are brand truths that exist whether you are a brand new department or the College of Engineering that’s been around for 100 years,” Busch said. “It doesn’t matter where you fall there, you are going for all those common elements that are necessary for anything to exist and flourish here at the University of Michigan.”

Busch said having a high quality brand and consistent imaging makes everything easier. Apple’s products all have a consistent look and feel. They all communicate well with each other and their functions are complementary. Apple’s brand gives people confidence to buy its products and pay more than they would otherwise.

Making a single brand for Michigan allows successes to multiply. Consequently, these successes in one field will rub-off and help create success in another. A student may come to Michigan because she saw the basketball team in a championship game or a patient may check-in at the University Hospital because he saw the national championship solar car team.

Michigan’s high quality name recognition in the region makes it much easier for some of the University’s hospitals and departments to attract patients, Brudon said. He added that other hospitals in the region just don’t have the same name recognition as the block ‘M.’

“The Michigan Brand is the Michigan Brand. It’s got a long history of performance and quality in excellence,” Brudon said. “If you market yourself under that corporate umbrella under the University of Michigan you get instant recognition. You get a pass.”

Similarly, development uses success stories from all parts of the University to tell donors that donations are being used effectively, Szczepanski said.

While there are many benefits from having a combined brand, it also heightens the danger that one part of the University could tarnish the whole. Many of Michigan’s thousands of units are still very functionally distinct even though they now all share the same types of brand signatures.

A single catastrophic incident, like the Sandusky scandal at Pennsylvania State University, where a former assistant football coach had systematically abused boys and teenagers for years without recourse, could fundamentally alter the image of the entire institution.

And at the University of Michigan, the recent Shane Morris controversy with Michigan Athletics, where a concussed player was reinserted into a football game, has caused outcry from alumni and fans across the country and much negative publicity.

“No one in a million years could imagine the Michigan brand being questioned the way it is now,” Brudon said. “Brands are enormously fragile.”