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Identity Crisis
Identity Crisis

How the University of California system built a brand identity but lost a logo along the way

By Jason Simon

Photo by Grow Marketing

"Stop the new UC logo," pleaded the petition. It was nearly 10 p.m. last Dec. 7 when I first learned of the online effort to prevent the University of California system from using its new monogram, a key part of a brand identity system designed to build awareness and support for UC's role in making a better California. By that point, the UC system had been sharing and using the new brand identity for more than a year. The logo had appeared on everything from our systemwide admissions website to TV ads and a 25-foot truck that toured the state in fall 2012.

The logo controversy was sparked by an article on the San Jose Mercury News' website that was promptly picked up by other news outlets and shared across social networks. Under the headline "University of California introduces a modern logo" sat a blurry, low-quality image of the new monogram next to the 145-year-old UC seal. The new logo was for use on systemwide web pages, social media, and other communications and marketing materials; it was never going to replace the university's seal, which would continue to be used on diplomas and other official university documents. But in a social media flash, a false narrative was cast.

By the next morning, 12,000 people had signed the petition; the number grew to 35,000 within 48 hours. On Sunday, the uproar made national news and was featured on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams that night. Six nearly sleepless nights after the petition was launched, we shelved the monogram in hopes of getting everyone refocused on the right issue—preserving what is often regarded as the best public university system in the world.

CURRENTS MJ13 Simon art opening spread stills thumbAs time has passed—and other visual identity controversies have followed—our team has reflected on what we might have done differently. But I'm mostly left with a lingering concern: At a time when strategic marketing is finally becoming an accepted concept at higher education institutions, how do communications and marketing professionals ensure that our efforts aren't seen as trivial, manipulative, or superficial?

California-sized challenges

The UC system is unlike any other. More than half its 10 campuses rank among the world's top 100 universities. The faculty currently includes 26 Nobel laureates and generates more than $4 billion a year in research funding. Nearly 40 percent of UC undergraduates are the first in their family to attend college. But these realities were mostly lost on a disconnected and disengaged public. Connecting the dots was our challenge.

To help address these issues, the marketing communications department—which I joined in February 2009 amid a major restructuring of the UC Office of the President—studied past surveys and market research. We audited UC's hodgepodge of disjointed websites and publications and consulted with colleagues throughout the UC system. These efforts revealed that, despite terrific efforts from individual campuses, the economic and societal impact of the entire system had never been clearly communicated.

The Great Recession both complicated and necessitated our efforts to create a system brand and tell UC's collective story. Within months UC lost $500 million in state funding; nearly $1 billion in state support would be cut over a four-year period. Tuition and fees dramatically increased, and employees across the system faced layoffs and furloughs.

Our branding mission took on a new sense of urgency. We had to convey not only where UC was headed but also why it deserved Californians' support.

Building a team and a brand

Developing a higher education brand requires a strong team and resources, a research-informed strategy, support from leadership at the highest levels, bold and creative ideas, and a culture that accepts that risk is inherent to getting your message heard in a crowded media environment. Building a brand is also a long-term investment best driven by people that live and breathe the institution's mission each day.

Restructuring the president's office, which houses marketing communications, allowed us to fill nearly 20 open positions with experienced and talented creative and editorial people, and align our work with a media and visual culture driven by the web, social media, and video. We made a strong case for investing resources in our efforts. We proved our capabilities, gained successes, and earned funding project by project until we built an operating budget that would let us create compelling, measurable work and call on experienced external partners as needed.

To understand the climate and build support and buy-in for our work, we conducted more than 70 in-depth interviews with leaders across the university system, institutional competitors, government and business officials, and higher education policymakers and thought leaders. We held focus groups with voters; employers; prospective students; and UC constituent groups, including faculty, staff, alumni, parents, and students. We quantified all this information in a massive baseline study of 2,000 California voters and more than 10,000 alumni and parents across the system to learn their opinions of UC and its campuses. At every step, we shared research-based insights and public sentiment in briefings to groups throughout the university.

We learned that Californians generally support higher education and the university system but worry that rising costs, higher academic standards, and increased competition could limit their ability to access UC. In addition, people were unaware of the scope of UC's work beyond its undergraduate mission. People didn't connect UC to its 10 hospitals, five medical centers, three national laboratories, statewide agriculture outreach, and panoply of other resources and services. Only 44 percent of California voters surveyed believed that UC had a direct impact on their lives; surprisingly, alumni and parents reported similar feelings.

We had our marching orders. In telling UC's story, we needed to:

  • Be more proactive and creative to cut through a cluttered media landscape;
  • Create relevance and authentically represent how Californians encounter UC's work each day;
  • Convey UC's vision for the future of higher education and its role in California;
  • Show the university's essential qualities; and
  • Ground our effort in what it means to be a Californian and live, work, and play in a state unlike any other.

We had to be bold and different. This was the basis for UC's vision, its promise of delivering public value, and the core brand message. We refined, vetted, and won approval for the approach from university leadership and then built a strategy around communicating how UC embodies the ambition of California and ignites the potential of its people. The concept, dubbed "boldly Californian," wasn't a tagline meant for external use, but it served as a touchstone for our work.

We developed a tone and personality for communicating our message, guided by attributes such as pioneering, optimistic, and experimental—terms that came directly from our research. These characteristics reflect the work and spirit of UC's campuses and blend nicely with an ethos defined by big personalities, big dreams, and big ideas brought to life in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and beyond.

Reflecting California

Change is risky, and the challenge is even greater when you're creating a unified identity for a system of 10 distinct campuses. Our team's visual strategy had to be as malleable as the "boldly Californian" positioning. After considering hundreds of possible designs, we opted for a concept that had its roots in the traditional UC seal but reflected a forward-looking institution. The new monogram retained the shape of the top of the book within the seal's center; a gradient graphically expressed the seal's light and sunrays as well as the words "Let there be light." But this was just one part of a broad visual identity system that also included a new color palette and approach to typography, photography, secondary visual elements, and more. We built a flexible visual system that could work in many different color variations and applications.

We moved cautiously, in part because we wanted to let the UC community react to the changes and give ourselves the space to make adjustments based on feedback, but also because we were concerned about giving the impression of "wasting" resources during a fiscal crisis. In countless briefing and feedback sessions online and in person on each campus, we met with senior university leaders, faculty and staff senates, student representatives, alumni boards, admissions representatives, and other stakeholders. We explained that the new identity elements would not supplant any campus logos or the university's seal. We presented the logo and showed how it would appear in ads and publications and on websites. Before using the identity more publicly, we tested it with a panel of prospective students and included it in an online survey of more than 3,000 alumni, parents, and employees. While specific feedback on the logo was split, the attributes associated with it were positive—clean, unique, and modern. When visual elements, including the monogram, were displayed in the ways that they might be used, respondents gave them extremely positive reviews. Prospective students loved them.

With these endorsements and support from leadership, we began to roll out the new identity in public. By late 2011 it appeared in print materials, on UC social media channels, and—most notably—on an overhauled systemwide admissions website.

CURRENTS MJ13 Simon art ads thumbnailIn summer 2012 we launched "Onward California," a public engagement campaign—paid for with funds from a private endowment established for outreach activities—to boost awareness of UC's value, stimulate fundraising and public advocacy, and complement campus marketing efforts. Its message was simple: The University of California, or a UC graduate, has played a part in your day.

A corresponding website and advertisements in print, on radio and television, and online amplified the brand platform and visual identity to highlight real-life examples of UC's societal contributions, such as breakthroughs in medical research, inventions like the neoprene wetsuit, and the university's role as an incubator for more than 600 startup companies. In September and October we brought the campaign to residents in unexpected ways, such as driving a 25-foot food truck (wrapped in the UC monogram) to 30 locations, including all 10 UC campuses and major public venues like the Santa Monica Pier and Big Fresno Fair. The tour attracted more than 60,000 people, who snacked on free UC-themed gelato bars and posed for pictures holding messages proclaiming their support for UC, which they were encouraged to share via social media.

CURRENTS MJ13 Simon art photo of boy thumbnailWhere do we go from here?

The first phase of "Onward California" helped keep UC and its contributions in the front of Californians' minds in the lead-up to Election Day in November, when voters passed a proposition that raised state revenue for K–12 and community college education by temporarily increasing the state sales tax and personal income taxes of people earning more than $250,000. In addition to stabilizing near-term education funding, Proposition 30's passage staved off a $250 million 2012–13 UC budget cut that would have been immediately triggered otherwise.

The visibility of "Onward California" also likely contributed to the interest in the new brand. In late November Co.Design (a daily blog on business and design by the business magazine Fast Company) and Brand New (a blog on corporate and brand identity work by the design website UnderConsideration) positively reviewed our brand and visual identity system, featuring examples of many of its graphic elements. These reviews were the genesis of the article and the petition that bring this story full circle. Although the UC identity was based on strategy and research, gained approval from UC community members, and was successfully used in public for more than a year, the monogram was sacrificed to an angry social media mob.

In hindsight, could we have done some things differently? Perhaps. Our approach could have been more evolutionary and less revolutionary, some have suggested, but that's not in keeping with our progressive tradition. Others have said that brushing aside the UC seal in the video introducing the new visual identity may have sent the wrong message. (However, the video ends with a hand putting the seal back together.) Maybe we should've formally placed the new approach before governing boards or a group tasked with making an official decision, thus requiring people to take a public position. Taking any of those steps might have helped, but it's also possible that the same thing would've happened. We walked away from the logo because we knew our broader communications strategy and the other elements of the visual identity system could advance without it. Being able to move on is a tribute to the symbol's success and our continuing strategy.

Everyone in higher education communications and marketing should reflect on this situation, particularly in the face of near-universal funding cuts, disruptive innovations such as massive open online courses, the increasing shift toward adult education and certification, mounting competition for research dollars, and ambitions to recruit international faculty and students. This experience raises real questions for communications and marketing professionals. How do we educate our stakeholders about strategic choices that are well-informed, professionally developed, and carefully tested? How do we ensure that risk-taking is welcomed in higher education when the industry is still struggling with the fact that it has to prove its value?

Brands and identities are built and accrue meaning over time. The best brands continually evolve. At UC we believe we've built a solid, strategic brand foundation that is so much more than any one symbol. So, in typical California spirit, we'll move onward.

About the Author Jason Simon Jason Simon

Before joining the higher education marketing firm SimpsonScarborough as a vice president and partner in February 2014, Jason Simon was the executive director of marketing communications for the University of California System. 




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