By Tanzina Vega
College students can have visceral reactions to many things — dormitory life, cafeteria food, midterms. And in this age of instant criticism online, another item can be added to that list: protests against the efforts of universities to refresh their logos, slogans and mascots.
The latest example of a university coming under pressure over its efforts to rebrand itself is the University of California, which after 144 years unveiled a new logo for the university system.
The original seal, dating back to 1868, showed an intricate design that included an open book under the light of a bright star while a banner with the words “Let There Be Light” floated below. The new logo, created by a team at the university, featured a “C” inside a blue U-shaped figure with a top that appeared to be an open book.
The change to the logo was part of a broader rebranding effort by the university system called Onward California, meant to give the university a new visual identity, attract new students and articulate a vision for its schools, said Jason Simon, director of marketing communications at the University of California.
But to many students, that explanation mattered little. The logo arrived to little fanfare in October 2011, but after media reports about the differences between the logos began circulating this November, thousands took to the Internet where they described it as “corporate” and “cheap” and posted a petition on change.org to stop its use. The new logo, read the petition, “while attempting to be modern, loses the prestige and elegance of the current seal.”
The petition was signed by more than 50,000 people, leading the university to suspend use of the logo.
“It caught everybody’s attention,” said Jefferson Coombs, executive director at the Cal Alumni Association at UC Berkeley. “Just the number of people that were commenting, and commenting in long form, commenting in detail, commenting their opinions about the space. This was, maybe, the most active social media conversation about the university system that I’ve seen over the past several years.”
The new logo was not meant as a replacement for the traditional seal, which would still be used on diplomas, transcripts and other university correspondence, Simon said. Websites, brochures and additional advertising would have carried the new logo, with the goal of refreshing the university’s identity after big cuts in state financing in 2009, and an executive compensation scandal that involved university administrators in 2007, he said.
“The university needed to do a better job and a more proactive job in telling its story to Californians,” he said. “One of the big things that we heard was that the University of California was still regarded as one of the greatest institutions in the world, but there were some concerns about where the university was headed.”
The short-term victory the students earned at the University of California does not change the increasingly difficult climate in which universities find themselves today, Simon said.
Many institutions undergo rebranding efforts to stay competitive in an environment where cuts in government financing require more private and corporate donations and where many prospective students may opt to take classes online instead of in traditional classrooms.
“The changing media landscape, the changing funding landscape has played into how colleges and universities are managing their visual identities and their message,” Simon said.
University brands have to look fresh and new, not only to impress prospective donors but also so they can translate well on the multiple platforms their logos will live on — including mobile phones, websites and tablets, Simon said. “The old standard used to be for a designer, ‘Does it fax?’ ” Simon said. “Now it’s, ‘Does it work as a Twitter icon?’ ”
Elizabeth Scarborough, chief executive of SimpsonScarborough, an ad and marketing agency that works with colleges and universities, said, “A lot of schools are taking a much more corporate approach.” Referring to chief marketing officers, she said “a CMO didn’t even exist on most campuses 10 years ago.”
Rebranding efforts at other universities have been met with similar reaction over the last few years. In 2010, when Purdue wanted “to raise the reputation of the institution,” it created a new branding campaign, said Teri Lucie Thompson, vice president for marketing and media at the university.
The campaign was called “Makers All,” a play on the “Boilermakers” nickname for Purdue students, alumni and sports teams, which dated back to 1891. Many students voiced their displeasure to the new slogan and its related campaign by taking to Facebook, where one page called “I’m a Boilermaker, not a Maker” had gotten more than 7,600 “Likes.” Others, including some faculty members, questioned whether it made sense to spend money on a branding campaign while budgets were being cut.
University officials said they never intended to remove the Boilermaker name and have since added the name to some of the marketing materials. The “Makers All” campaign is still active and the university has since added the tagline — “What We Make Moves the World Forward.”
Drake University also drew criticism in 2010 when it used a “D+” as the symbol for its branding campaign, meant to convey the idea of linking students with the opportunities it had to offer (Hence the “+”).
The campaign was criticized by many. University officials defended the campaign and the + is still in use on the university Web site connecting words like “History + Tradition” and “Your Potential + Our Investment.” The “D+,” however, is absent.