Late last week, I learned (thanks to Ron Bronson’s .edustir blog) about a new rebranding campaign under way at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, and the school’s brave new logo (right). The logo (pretty edgy, at least for a university) and other portions of Waterloo’s visual identity have been leaked prior to the official unveiling, and as you might expect, some students and alumni are up in arms. Not necessarily because they hate the logo (although some do), but because they feel they’ve been excluded from the rebranding process.
As Ron points out in his blog post, some of those who felt excluded from the process have “revolted to the only place where they know to scream — Facebook.” The Facebook group — Students and Alumni Against the New University of Waterloo Logo — has 7,325 members and plenty of venom against the logo, the university and the process.
Which is par for the course these days. Or at least, university marketers and administrators should not be surprised when stakeholders — usually students and alumni — make a stink when they’re not as involved as they think they should be.
A logo is not a brand
We all know that a logo is not a brand. But a logo and visual identity are the most tangible aspects of a brand, and for that reason they can become lightning rods. This is something we experienced at Missouri University of Science and Technology, when we changed our name from the University of Missouri-Rolla and created a new visual identity as part of that change. (If you want to read about our particular sausage-making, it’s all out there in the archives of our Name Change Conversations blog.)
From everything I’ve read, Waterloo has gone the standard route to communicate the change. The president and VP of external relations issued a memo titled How to better tell the Waterloo story to all faculty and staff, and in it explained the rationale for rebranding: A “recent national reputational survey” showed that Waterloo is viewed as a “regional university” and that “very few people outside Ontario were even aware of Waterloo’s reputation or what sets us apart from other schools.”
It seems we need to work harder at telling our story to those who matter. With unsettling economic times, more revenue coming from students than government, and ambitious sixth decade plans for faculties, schools, and departments, a number of task forces have been working hard at doing just that.
All the right things
The school did all the right things that universities do to implement change. Those in charge set up task forces, developed a “positioning framework” based on the Waterloo’s vision, values, positioning attributes and brand promise. “They [the task forces] have also worked on a new identity to visually present Waterloo and a roll-out process and schedule for the new positioning and identity framework.” The memo outlined in fair detail the guiding principles for the brand rollout.
On paper, everything looked good.
Then last week, the logo was leaked and, as so well put in this post on the Brand New blog, “people freaked the hell out.” The Facebook group was formed and became the official rallying point for disgruntled students, alumni, faculty and staff.
Could the outcry have been avoided? Not likely. But perhaps it could have been better contained. As we found out in our rebranding experiment of 2007-2008, having a forum on the university’s website and publicizing it to alumni, students, faculty, staff and the public as the place to get information, ask questions and vent may have prevented the rise of group similar to the one Waterloo is now dealing with. We had a few opposition groups on Facebook, and granted, Facebook wasn’t as big then as it is now, and most Facebookers were college students. But still. I think our proactive approach — as part of a broader strategy of communication and engagement — helped to contain the grumbling during a highly charged name change process.
The Brand New blogger laments “the propensity of students and faculty to cry foul with any change that has been carried out thoroughly by a range of committees.” (Obviously, he doesn’t work in higher education. This is just a fact of life in higher ed. Better get used to it.) But I agree with Brand New’s comment that, “If they respect their university and its values they need to trust their leadership. Not whine about how 12-year-olds could do a better logo. Because they can’t.”
In the final analysis, I concur with Brand New:
Dear Waterloo-people-in-charge: Stick to your plan. Don’t succumb.