Higher Education Branding and the Over-Emphasis on the Logo

We want to start this post with a question: has a new logo unveiling – either at the corporate or academic level – ever been met with excitement and praise? Marketing experts are always preaching about the power of the logo and how it’s at the vanguard of what a “brand” represents, yet two recent logo unveiling fiascos at major universities reveal just how problematic they can be if you are not focusing first on the specific qualities of the product or service your logo represents.

The institutions in question are the University of California system and George Washington University. Both institutions concluded intense periods of background research with similarly anti-climactic logo unveilings, but they differed greatly in the consideration given to defining their institutional brand along the way. Both examples serve as cautionary tale in higher education marketing, but it’s worth taking a look at how the University of California could’ve saved itself from a backlash and an embarrassing retraction, while GW’s campaign seemed to have been doomed by questionable decisions from the start.

George Washington University: where’s the beef?

In George Washington’s case, the word “branding” seemed to begin and end at the visual level. GW revealed its new logo back in August. It was the result of two years of research, university-wide collaboration and design, according to Fairfax News. The response to this unveiling, however, was tepid:

At about 8 p.m., three versions of the new logo splashed across the top of a pixelated screen, revealing it publicly for the first time. The Audience paused, holding back reaction. Students' hesitation seemed to indicate a question rippling through the room: is that it?

We’ve emphasized before that branding (or positioning) is nothing more than a compelling and distinctive identity that expresses the special qualities of a college or university in ways that motivate the interest and inspire the dreams of important constituents. In launching this latest campaign, however, GW apparently considered the sui generis qualities of the University to be the least important aspect of its approach (or maybe it was too difficult to define such distinctions). Given the over-emphasis on the visual presentation in nearly all GW press materials produced in wake of this new unveiling, it seems GW thought a brand was the kind burned into a steer’s hide. Take the words of Dr. Lynn Maddox, professor of marketing and advertising in GW’s school of business, and part of the working group that produced this campaign, on the importance of this new purely visual aesthetic:

“I think a lot of people don’t realize how important the look and feel is to a university. It really benefits everyone,” said Dr. Maddox. “The new logo brings the entire university together in a unified and forward-looking image.”

This begs the question: unified and forward-looking image of what? A graphic design? There are precious few words devoted to exactly what GW is positioning itself to be, other than one sentence claiming that GW aspires to be “simply the most powerful and influential research university in one of the greatest cities in the world,” goals that are indistinguishable from just about every university in a major American city. In fact, one might argue that outside the beltway most Americans today see Washington very differently. In order to truly separate itself, GW would be better served to find out exactly what advantages it might have over its competitors and seek to emphasize that as part of its positioning/branding campaign. If you are not promoting an experience distinctive to an institution, supported by robust market research, you are simply left with a logo and color scheme and nothing else.

In our view, GW made a miscalculation by revealing this borderline non-event to be a culmination of years of work incorporating experts and outside firms. A let-down from these great expectations shouldn’t have surprised anyone. This isn’t what we would call a branding campaign; it’s a visual tune-up.

University of California: a missed opportunity

The University of California appeared to conduct the internal background research necessary to craft a truly compelling message (contrary to GW's efforts), but undermined their work by making the new logo the centerpiece of their new branding campaign. The logo was immediately derided for being too corporate, but UC Director of Marketing Jason Simon maintained it was meant to represent the progressive approach of the UC system (via Inside Higher Ed):

“Simon said that the new logo helps in ways that the seal does not. "The new mark was created as a part of our broader efforts to build awareness and support for all the things that UC does to make California (and by extension the world) better," he wrote. "What we have tried to do is to create a mark that is iconic, flexible, and solid enough that it works to represent the UC system as a whole. The mark can be used in a combination of the various UC blues and golds as well as in a multitude of applications. Seals are wonderful and carry a legacy and tradition. They also signify bureaucracy, staidness, and other not-so-great characteristics. Much of this was evident in the testing and discussion we did as part of the process."”

Simon’s defense of the logo included an articulation of an actual brand identity: the ways in which UC makes California and the world better. UC also included an engaging video to accompany the logo launch that reveals many of the experiential learning activities that UC students partake in to improve their home state. The question remains, then, If UC has settled on a compelling messaging platform, why squander it by shoehorning the theme into the new logo design? What does the flexibility of blue and golds have to do with students studying threatened oyster populations or the impact of climate change on the California coast? UC had an opportunity to put the spotlight on the special qualities of their system by highlighting and elevating the specific programs that help to make California better. Instead, they wasted potential momentum on visual jargon, and ended up having to retract the logo entirely due to the backlash, further entrenching themselves in a fiasco that could've been avoided.

In the end, nothing illustrates the superficiality of the logo than the following link: http://notstoppingbelieving.com/logos-overrated/.

Special products are identified by the content that makes them unique, whether it's an institution of higher education, a foundation, or a corporation. Logos are merely window dressing, and higher education marketing efforts need to look beyond the allure of the logo and identify a truly distinctive institutional brand.

For more information on Art & Science Group's branding work, click here

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