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An Outrage Over a Rebranding

December 27th, 2012

The marketing officer at the University of California, Jason Simon, had a teachable moment in recent weeks as students rallied to protest a new icon that was developed as a supplement to the signature lockup logotype and former university “seal.”

It never ceases to amaze me how this sort of rebranding process and result can fly into the face of a constituent audience and cause such discord. GAP did this in 2010 and realized very quickly what a debacle it had created with a new logo that gained a consensus of unfavorable review from its customers. We live in an over-mediated society and it’s clearly easy to state our opinions online, to be critical and make our voice heard. After the fallout, the subsequent retreat by GAP was faster than an inventory clerk could say “stock in freefall.”

University of California Logo, Original DesignI read this article and my first instinct was that the student body was likely never conferred, or at least a representative sampling of opinions was not executed. A “front end” research phase is absolutely necessary in a high profile rebranding such as this. A selection of relevant trendmakers and thought leaders within the student body could have been assembled to gain insights into whether a new logo was necessary, and if so, what direction to take. Did the University of California need a new logo? If so, why? What were the reasons that drove the decision?

“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 Mr. Simon. According to Simon, “The old standard used to be for a designer, ‘Does it fax?’ Now it’s, ‘Does it work as a Twitter icon?’ ”

That seems like a weak argument for changing a classic lockup that has a heritage of 144 years since the founding of the University. The article in the Times references the desire for many academic organizations to remake themselves and their images in an era of state cutbacks in funding. Many schools are driven to seek corporate or even private funding, leading them to the curious decision to make an exciting new visual reflection of their brand.

This too, is a weak reason to rebrand. I worked in media for many years and I was always fascinated by the suggestion that a new symbol or identity would, magically, in and of itself, put a shiny, exciting new façade on the organization. A rebranding should never be thought of as a car wax, a makeover, or a new suit. Rather, it should manifest important changes within any organization — a new strategic direction, a reaction to a sea shift in the market, even an evolution over time that has left the visual brand as a dated representation of the core mission, vision, and values.

University of California Redesigned LogoSimon continued, “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. Web sites, brochures and additional advertising would have carried the new logo,” he said.

This too, makes little sense to me. Best practices in branding dictate that there be one flagship lockup logo, as opposed to various symbols and interpretations of the identity floating around, which can dilute the brand. Why send so many different messages about the core brand? For what purpose?

Personally, I don’t blame the students for filing a petition. Good for them! Over 50,000 have signed the document, causing the University to suspend the logo recently. I’m sure that the new symbol has a rationale, but on first impression, it appears like a poor representation of an esteemed institution founded in 1868. The old lock up with the original symbol projects the kind of gravitas that I would think any State University would desire. The new icon is a cheap, disposable update, one with very little in the way of substantive symbolism. Why is the “C” dissipating? Why is it designed in a bubblegum font?


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This entry was posted on Thursday, December 27th, 2012 at 1:44 pm and is filed under Advertising, Brand Identity, Customer Experience, Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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