Behind the Block 'M': The Business of Branding a University

Ferry Field, c. 1908

Ferry Field, c. 1908
Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library
Tuesday, March 28, 2017 - 6:52pm

For more than a century, the University of Michigan’s logo — the block ‘M’ — has been an Ann Arbor staple, emblazoned on everything from the Big House scoreboard to the graduation-party cakes of high-school seniors.

Despite slight modifications over the years, the simple, maize-colored ‘M’ set on a blue field has symbolized the University’s historically dominant Athletic Department for more than 100 years. And in recent years, the famous ‘M’ has been branded to represent the entire institution.

The block ‘M’ dates back to the late 1800s, but not until 1907 did it become a fixture at major athletic events. In 1907, students attending a football game at Ferry Field — the predecessor to Michigan Stadium — first raised maize and blue flags to form the now-iconic logo.

Brian Williams, the lead bicentennial archivist at the Bentley Historical Library, added that the University’s athletic teams also unofficially adopted the block ‘M’ in the 1900s.

“There were a number of versions of the ‘M’ used by early football and baseball teams,” Williams said. He explained that modern versions of the logo were used by the University’s football team in about 1900. Baseball teams, however, used variations of the ‘M’ — such as Old English or Gothic style — on uniforms, caps and warm-up coats into the 1910s.

In the decades that followed, the block ‘M’ was fully embraced by the University, and the commercialization of the logo followed. A 1975 Sports Illustrated feature by Frank Deford about Don Canham, the University’s former athletic director, described this level of brand management as unprecedented in the world of college sports.

“We've (the University Athletic Department) got to promote what we have,” Canham said in 1975. “We've got to ballyhoo the pageantry, the weekend on the campus, the kids, the cheerleaders, the bands. And the same thing with basketball. We've got to sell the spectacle."

The Sports Illustrated feature painstakingly details the extent to which Canham had commercialized the school’s brand, which was modest by the modern standards of NCAA merchandising, but extraordinary in 1975.

“Canham's brochures have been compared … to Florida land-development brochures,” Deford wrote. “The Michigan mailing goes to 1.2 million homes … (peddling) through mail orders all manner of Wolverine bric-a-brac: doormats, playing cards, books, ashtrays, lamps shaped like football helmets and pocketbooks shaped like footballs and basketballs.”

Lettermen at football game, c.1965

Lettermen at football game, c.1965
Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library

During Canham’s 20-year tenure from 1968 to 1988, the University’s athletic brand grew in popularity. The football program underwent a renaissance led by head coach Glenn “Bo” Schembechler, who coached the team from 1969 to 1989 and would become the winningest football coach in University history. The basketball team simultaneously enjoyed a sustained period of success under head coach Johnny Orr, who coached the team from 1968 to 1980, going all the way to the national championship game in 1976.

But since the 1960s, the block ‘M’ has undergone rebranding to represent the University’s academic institutions in addition to its athletic powerhouse — supplanting its less famous cousin, the academic seal of the University, which is now reserved solely for official purposes involving the University’s elected Board of Regents.

Consequently, this growth in brand awareness translated to big business for the University that brings in millions of dollars in licensing fees each year. 

The University realized the commercial potential of its brand before many other public universities, according to Steve Busch, the University’s brand manager.

“The University of Michigan was one of the first universities to recognize the value of its mark from a fan-affinity perspective, and then trademark that and utilize it to generate revenue for its athletic programs,” Busch said. “And that is how that mark (the block ‘M’) is used. It goes to fund the Athletic Department and their campus as well as fund 930-plus student athletes that utilize the athletic campus.”

But the issue of the University’s brand extends beyond business interests, encompassing the question of the University’s dual identity as a public university and multi-million-dollar business enterprise.

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LSA junior Jack Googasian is the president of the Michigan Ultras, the soccer fan section equivalent of the University’s Maize Rage or Children of Yost. In 2016, his organization attempted to gain permission from the University to use the block ‘M’ as a part of its logo. However, because Michigan Ultras is a voluntary student organization — a student organization that receives no funding from the University — the request was denied.

According to the University’s guidelines for logo usage by student groups, only sponsored student organizations — ones that are supervised by an executive officer, dean or University director — can gain access to the coveted block ‘M.’

But even sponsored student organizations must adhere to strict logo-usage rules that are considered by some to be archaic. For instance, they’re prohibited from using the block ‘M’ as part of their own logos. Instead, they can use it on promotional materials such as flyers and posters.

To Googasian, these regulations are understandable, even if they are cumbersome.

“While inconvenient, I totally recognize the University’s restraint from allowing every student organization to use these trademarks,” Googasian said. “We have every intention of following the guidelines … so we do not cause any problems for the administration. Ultimately they are not trying to be critical or unsupportive of student groups but defensive of their own trademarks and who uses them.”

Michigan merchandise in store window

Michigan merchandise in store window
Alexis Rankin/Daily

In 2013, the University standardized the design of the block ‘M’ to ensure consistency in its display.

A style-and-usage guide released by the University dictates strict provisions on the sizing, color, aspect ratios and fonts that are allowed when displaying the block ‘M.’ 

“From a design perspective, it’s clean, classic, and understated,” the website reads. “Yet the new signature mark is a quick communicator of our nearly 200-year heritage, communicating authority and tradition. In its simplicity, there’s authority. In its understatement, a refusal to bow to passing design fads. Which earns it one additional adjective: exceptional.”

At the time, then-University President Mary Sue Coleman issued a statement articulating that the decision to embrace the block ‘M’ was made largely because of the logo’s instant recognizability.

“As we embrace a new look for the University’s graphic identity — building on the globally recognized Block M — we are carrying Michigan forward,” Coleman wrote in 2013. “Adopting this common identity reinforces the academic excellence that is synonymous with the University of Michigan. It pays tribute to our collective heritage, allows us to speak in one voice, and helps us move into our third century as one of the world’s greatest universities.”

From these messages, it is clear the University seeks to brand itself as a globally prestigious and forward-thinking institution that is rooted in history, with the famous ‘M’ as a standard-bearer of that image. But in this massive branding effort, does the University also compromise its values as a public institution meant to serve the nearly 10 million citizens of Michigan?

Busch — the official tasked with handling concerns related to the non-commercial use of the block ‘M’ logo — thinks not. According to him, the University has resisted adopting a corporate-style approach to the licensing of its brand, even after years of increasing brand recognition.

“We think it is important to handle all requests to use the University’s logo on a case-by-case basis because we are not a corporation, we are a public institution of higher learning,” Busch said. “We have over 550,000 living alumni, and many of them are very proud to be affiliated with the University, and we want them to be able to demonstrate their affinity for symbols associated with the University.”

Busch’s office receives hundreds of requests annually for the use of the block ‘M,’ primarily for small-scale commercial purposes. This includes people requesting permission to place the block ‘M’ on customizable celebratory graduation cakes to requests by local high schools to use similarly styled logos and uniform designs for athletic teams.

Typically, Busch says, this poses no problem to the University so long as it meets two major criteria: Is the purpose for the logo’s use for sentimental reasons instead of commercial purposes, and does the use of the logo harm the University?

If the intent of its use is to enrich oneself or a given business, which is often the case, then the request must go through the licensing office where business arrangements must be made before the University will lend its image to a product. Additionally, when assessing if the use of the logo could potentially harm the University's brand, Busch says his office looks for a particular set of red flags.

“If a company or a person wants to use the University’s logo for business purposes, they would have to go through our licensing and trademarks department where they would be instructed to obtain a CLC (Collegiate Licensing Company) license — which is our partner that manages the licensing of our block ‘M.’ ” Busch said. “But then they would also have to get approval from the University where they would outline what that item is. And we stay away from things that we would call the ‘sin items’: We don’t do anything affiliated with items like alcohol, tobacco, drugs or pornography.”

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Alexis Rankin/Daily

Beth Paul, the University’s director of strategic partnerships at the Trademarks and Licensing Program, which is housed within the Athletic Department, helps oversee and manage many of the contracts the CLC makes with prospective business partners seeking to use the University’s logo. According to her, there are a wide variety of companies, large and small, that are authorized to use the block ‘M.

“Our licensing team manages the use of our marks and logos on merchandise, and has been navigating this environment for many, many years,” Paul said. “Michigan currently has approximately 400 companies who are licensed to produce items bearing the University name and/or trademarks.”

The process to gain University permission to use the block ‘M’ logo — despite being processed mainly through the CLC — must meet certain requirements as a part of a business litmus test, Paul noted.

“There are many criteria we use to evaluate whether a company would make a good licensing partner, including business history of (the) company; whether they have any experience in sports licensing; whether they have strong retailer relationships already established; whether we need additional companies in a particular product category or distribution channel; quality or product and application of logos; compliance history; and corporate social responsibility program are just some of the hard factors that we consider,” Paul said.

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The use of the block ‘M’ logo for private business is something that has been a source of significant funds for the University in recent decades. The University’s royalties from licensed merchandise bearing the block ‘M’ amounted to $6 million between June 2011 and July 2012, according to an Associated Press report published by the Oakland Press News in January 2013.

This, the article claims, is indicative of a growing culture of collegiate licensing — during each of those years the University handled just more than 80 licensing requests, granting access to more than 70 percent of applicants.

“Collegiate licensing is a $4.6 billion enterprise and the University of Michigan generated the fifth-highest licensing earnings of any university in fiscal 2012, according to Collegiate Licensing Company rankings,” the article reads. “The University of Michigan's licensing revenue climbed 22 percent in fiscal 2012, rising $1.1 million from the previous year's revenue of $4.9 million.”

While many of the license holders do not yield significant revenue for the institution, others can net the University hundreds of millions.

In April 2016, the University finalized a splashy apparel deal with Nike, and the financial details of this business agreement are staggering.

Nike agreed to pay the University a guaranteed sum of at least $173.8 million in exchange for the contracts with the University Athletic Department, and the rights to merchandise apparel to the general public through at least 2027 with an option to extend the contract through 2031. 

This mega-deal put the University in elite company. According to ESPN, the University’s deal, which was believed to be the largest collegiate-apparel deal ever at the time it was signed, has only recently been surpassed by the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of Texas and Ohio State Univeristy.

Given the financial stakes, the University seeks to maintain tight control over its brand image. And, thus far, the University has done so scrupulously.

The University’s logo — like almost those of every other university — annually maintains its trademark and federal registration, according to Busch.

“The modern iteration of the block ‘M’ … is federally registered and trademarked by the Athletic Department on an annual basis,” Busch said. “And they ensure that the trademark is protected by working with the counsel’s office. The University will pursue people or companies that try to use the logo without our permission.”

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1899 University of Michigan Football Team

1899 University of Michigan Football Team
Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library

The University’s protectiveness of its brand is not new. Nor is it uncommon among U.S. universities, especially those with such large athletic departments and alumni bases. So why does it matter?

Simply put, because the block ‘M’ logo carries a significant meaning. And if we are to believe the opinions of Canham, Coleman and Busch, it is one that is emblematic of athletic dominance and academic prestige.

When dealing with business interests that tally earnings in the millions, it seems reasonable the institution would like to keep tight control and protect its brand from third parties misusing and abusing its reputation.

For students like Googasian and his soccer club, this means that the block ‘M’ is not available. According to Busch, it is not that the University wants to exclude organizations like the Michigan Ultras from using the block ‘M,’ but rather this prohibition on voluntary student organizations’ use of the logo is meant to serve as a precedent to insulate the University from being caught between a rock and a hard place.

Because of decades of calculated processes to build its brand’s credibility, the block ‘M’ lends legitimacy to whatever object to which it is attached.

If all student clubs, regardless of their University sponsorship status, had access to the block ‘M,’ then the University would have little to no control over what the public perceived as University-sponsored.

Not only would this pose problems for the University if the block ‘M’ were used in the logo of a political organization, but, if taken to its logical end, the University could potentially have difficulty controlling their logos usage by organizations that violate the “sin items.”

“Volunteer organizations do not have access to the block ‘M’ as a measure to protect itself,” Busch said. “It’s one of those things where if someone set up a drinking club or a beer-pong club and they used the block ‘M’ and something dubious or unfortunate happened where some student’s safety was endangered, we would want it to be clear that those activities were not sanctioned by the University.”

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The block ‘M’ presents other questions about the nature of the institution. Given the symbol’s history as a mark of the University’s athletic tradition, is the University’s formal adoption of the logo for the entirety of the institution implicitly a sign that the University wants to promote its athletic brand before its academic one?

Furthermore, considering the significant revenue generated by the Athletic Department because of the efforts of more than 930 student-athletes, are the University’s profits justly earned?

The University administration has offered answers to both these questions through the years. Coleman, when announcing the block ‘M’s adoption, spoke only of the implications of unifying the academic institution under the logo. And critics of the NCAA prohibition on paying players under the guise of amateurism cannot reasonably blame the University for adhering to the rules of collegiate sports’ governing body.

Such questions go to a larger debate about the identity of the University. As the institution enters its third century, and is in the throes of a year-long bicentennial celebration of its past and present, the University has been calling upon its extensive network of affiliates to consider the future. What will the University stand for going forward? What values and causes will the University champion?

As for Busch, who is both a graduate and current employee of the University, the protection of the block ‘M’ and the image of the University ensures the longevity of the institution’s good reputation while also keeping the logo available to all who bleed blue.

“I have a great degree of pride and esteem for the brand,” Busch said. “My approach to the identity of the University is first and foremost to ensure the preservation of the brand and I take a great degree of pride in that and our fair and reasonable approach. We are a brand that has a high affinity for more than just athletic achievements, and we want to celebrate that.”