Brave new logo (in a brave new world)

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.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

4 thoughts on “Brave new logo (in a brave new world)”

  1. Aesthetic judgments on the logo aside – I’m not a fan, personally – this whole situation poses some pretty interesting process questions: namely, at what point should university decision makers move beyond “a range of committees” and bring a pending change to a larger audience for discussion/feedback/debate? When do we take the private conversation public?

    I’m not sure there’s ever an easy, clean answer to that question, but in Waterloo’s case, I don’t think they opened that door quickly enough or wide enough. It seems as if they were hoping to get through the spring/summer with a largely top-down communications strategy (website stories without user comments or feedback, banner advertising) and save all the messy stuff for the Fall. I think the lesson here is that you need to get mechanisms for public consultation in place as soon as possible once you start taking your conversation public. That way, if a leak such as this does occur, you have mechanisms in place to engage the responses when they break out.

    In contrast, most of Waterloo’s tactics since the leak feel like they’re making it up as they go (which they probably are, and sympathies to them on that front). It’s like they’re hoping to survive this until the Fall when they can get back to the gameplan they had originally intended. Hopefully they spend the next month thinking about how they can improve at making the audiences that will own this new logo (students/faculty/staff/alumni) feel like more active participants in the decision.

    One final point…this is among the most creative and organized anti-university campaigns I’ve seen. Some of the spoof logos and videos are quite witty, and credit to the organizers of the FB group for working hard at managing the discussion, trying to start a dialogue with the university and handling their reaction with a lot more class than many reactionary FB groups.

  2. I think there are a lot of lessons UW administration is just now learning about process and design mixed with community upheaval that uses social media tools. A lot posts that have been written about this issue assume UW students and alumni are normally a vocal group. They aren’t. This is simply amazing to see such a reaction from the UW community as it has never happened before in at least a generation.

    As a university we need to figure out how to take advantage of this new found interest in the uni. Not doing so would be unfortunate.

  3. Thanks Andrew for the eye-opening post from my home country of Canada.

    We’re taking a very different approach with our re-branding project at German Jordanian University (GJU) .. We’re using Facebook to pre-launch the new logo and get feedback from students, staff, etc.

    We didn’t say a word about it .. We just published our new Facebook page with the new logo and let the students do the talking. And talk they did! Thankfully it has all been positive so far, but I think that is largely to do with the fact that our previous logo was HORRIBLE!

    Now we plan to leverage this positive momentum as we move forward with the rest of the re-branding project.

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