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Elements of Branding

March 19, 2014
by Mary McKinley

Brands comprise a package of sensorial elements meant to promise unique value and to maximize awareness and recognition of the product, service, or entity they stand for. Ideally the brand bundle should evoke an emotional response, a resonance in the eye and mind that helps to bond the viewer to the product or service. One element of this is the logo, usually a graphic symbol. To the public, a logo should be a reminder of a company, service, institution, or product; to the customer, it’s a familiar and trusted symbol; and to staff, it’s a point of belonging. The challenge for good logo design is to encompass intangibles such as pride, values, and history all in a single image.

The January 2013 launch of the “new” Berkeley brand, including the new wordmark and an integrated communications strategy, was so smooth that no one batted an eye. The strategy, according to Hulda Nelson of Berkeley’s Office of Public Affairs, was the result of a campuswide inventory that the communications team conducted of all the wordmark’s different versions, typefaces, uses (and misuses), and placements. It was clear that no one was sure any longer what the actual brand image of Berkeley was, which meant that it had become diluted. In the case of Berkeley, its wordmark is its logo, and its image is conveyed by the colors (Berkeley Blue and California Gold). Knowing how attached to tradition the alumni, donors, and even current students tend to be, despite the popular radical image that clings to Berkeley, the team decided to use the font originally designed for the UC Press in 1938 by pre-eminent typographer Frederic William Goudy and slightly revised for digitization in 1994. Its name is UC Berkeley Old Style.

By contrast, the 2010 decision to create a new brand image for the whole University of California system was an impossible solution to a problem that didn’t really exist. The ten schools in the system are independent, so much so that each has its own chancellor and administrative body, its own beloved sports mascots, its own list of outstanding scholars. But there was simply no evidence of a need for a unifying brand. The justification given was that voters, donors, and politicians lacked awareness of the daily positive impacts of the UC system on the lives of Californians. The hope was that state funding, which now makes up only around 13 percent of the UC operating budget, would increase as a result of the new brand campaign.

Because no single official logo for the entire UC system had ever existed (beyond the seal, used mainly by the UC Office of the President and the Board of Regents), the task was not simply to update but to create a modern, attractive logo that would communicate the ideas the design team hoped to convey—that UC’s core values are pioneering, optimistic and experimental.

Furthermore, it had to work for each of the 10 universities, which range in age from 11 to 146 years old.

Marketing surveys and focus groups among voters, alumni, professors, and current and prospective students were the smart thing to do—and indeed UCOP’s design team reviewed and conducted thousands of surveys seeking opinions and reactions to all of the revamped brand elements. The new logo itself was tested on the website for prospective students and wrapped around a gelato truck dispensing free treats to 60,000 people on each of the ten campuses and in major public venues like Venice Beach in autumn 2012. But as any marketing research professor or professional can tell you, favorable polling doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Sometimes, they just like the free ice cream.

And despite enthusiasm in the test runs, the logo flopped badly. UCOP’s own online video introducing the new logo began with a hand brushing away the seal to draw in the new brand elements. The design team at UCOP places part of the blame on “the media”: When the San Jose Mercury News covered it on their website a few days later, the article showed the new logo next to the UC seal, implying that the logo was replacing the traditional seal. Other news outlets and social media across the country quickly picked it up and the damage was done. Although there was never any intention to replace the seal with the logo, the response from the public was swift and painful. Within 48 hours, 35,000 people signed a “Stop the new UC Logo” petition and 6 days later the logo was abandoned.

The UCOP design team are good designers who accomplished the task they were set—to make more Californians aware of the role the ten universities play in their daily lives in a fresh, future-oriented way with a visual symbol and other elements. They may have even intentionally contrasted the old (the seal) and the new (the logo), but there seemed to be a disconnect somewhere along the process. Ultimately, it seems they didn’t take into consideration just how traditional UC’s demographic groups (professors and staff, alums, parents, and donors) are.

The University of California wordmark was also changed and the vitriolic complaints about the logo bled over into criticism of its new layout and fonts. Thus far, none of the ten universities in the system have adopted the new UC wordmark. Even the new, lighter colors, Pantone 299 (UC blue) and Pantone 116 (UC gold) are not being used across the ten campuses.

If there is a lesson to be learned here about branding of an established institution, it’s that success hinges on identifying and respecting the values already associated with the institution. In the case of UC, those values speak to tradition, pride in past achievements, expectations of more greatness in the future—not to radical and edgy changes during a period of economic uncertainty.

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