The final word

Telling MSU Denver’s story means showing how it transforms lives, communities and higher education.

By Leslie Petrovski

Publish Date: April 18, 2016

Photo by Mark Woolcott

A TV ad encapsulates MSU Denver’s brand promise in just 30 seconds:

Former Denver Bronco Tyrone Braxton (MSW ’14) looks straight into the camera and describes how the University helped him figure out his second act in life as a clinical case manager at the Mental Health Center of Denver. “I reinvented myself at MSU Denver,” he says. “And you can do it, too.”

The message isn’t new – MSU Denver has held out this promise of transformation since welcoming its first class in 1965 – but it has evolved over time.

“This institution is known for its courage, boldness and entrepreneurial spirit,” said Cathy Lucas, chief of staff and chief communications officer. “That we are now sought after as a leader in higher education and by businesses and industry interested in our expertise and graduates – that’s an aspect of our brand that wasn’t there 10 years ago.”

Or 50 years ago, when nearly 1,200 students started classes at what then Colorado Rep. Roy Romer called a “street-smart kind of school” where students would “rise or fall by their own wits.”

Robert Bowen (B.S. history and political science ’71) was one of those students when he enrolled at “Metro” in 1967. The author of “The Vision, The Struggle: How Metropolitan State University of Denver Began,” Bowen said that when he matriculated, the University was a place where under-represented students – poor kids, women and minorities – could get a four-year degree.

A former Colorado state representative and retired businessman, Bowen has seen MSU Denver’s reputation catch up with what was always happening in its classrooms. “From day one,” he said, “we had the largest percentage of Ph.D. faculty in the state and one of the highest in the country. The education was always excellent, but that wasn’t the perception.”

He credits the achievements of MSU Denver’s faculty and alumni – about 75 percent of whom live in Colorado – with helping to shift public views about the school. “There have been so many achievements by alums and faculty in aerospace and all kinds of fields,” he said. “That success in and of itself changes public perception.”

So does a strong leader. Since President Stephen Jordan came to MSU Denver in 2005, he has pushed the institution to own its quality while also challenging it to become the nation’s preeminent public urban university. The last 10 years have seen MSU Denver achieve innumerable accomplishments, from attaining university status and constructing highly visible, award-winning facilities to championing undocumented students in higher education.

The University has also dug into its brand over the past decade, working with the Denver-based company Sector Brands to refine how it presents itself, and developing memorable key messages about its brand promise of transformation: MSU Denver transforms lives, communities and higher education.

These days, market research shows that about 70 percent of Denverites know that its homegrown, urban university stands for personal and community growth. By 2020, “we want that number to be 85 percent,” said Lucas, citing the figure outlined in the University’s strategic plan.

MSU Denver’s 50th anniversary campaign should help. In addition to a special 50th anniversary website, which showcases a detailed historical timeline and photos, profiles of notable alumni, events and other items, the campaign includes television ads featuring high-profile alumni like Braxton; Rowena Alegria (B.A. Spanish ’91), chief communications officer for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock; and Joe Rice (B.A. history ’89), director of government relations at Lockheed Martin.

The TV ads, which are running on KUSA, KCNC and Telemundo, are being reinforced by billboards, bus shelter displays and light rail wraps featuring additional MSU Denver alumni who are leaders in their fields.

But the brand is larger than the advertising the University deploys to support it, said Lucas. The brand reflects the institution’s choices, outcomes and identity.

“If you look at the Aerospace and Engineering Sciences Building we just broke ground on, that’s going to have a direct impact on enrollment, and industry will recruit MSU Denver students rather than from out of state,” she said. “This is transformational for us and Colorado. We are evolving, but we’re doing it in a scrappy way.”