Mascot makeovers: A tricky business

The recently redesigned -- and more recently reconsidered -- Billiken mascot made its debut on Sept. 20. (Photo by Bill Barrett via SLU website.)
The recently revamped — and more recently discarded — Billiken mascot made its debut on Sept. 20. (Photo by Bill Barrett via SLU website.)

The occasional visual identity upgrade is part and parcel of university branding activities these days. It isn’t unusual for universities to revise their color palettes or refine the logos or other institutional symbols — although logo revisions can bring controversy and headaches to brand managers.

But messing with the mascot? That’s serious business, as Saint Louis University recently discovered.

Alumni and students love their mascots, and woe be it to the university marketing office that decides to give the mascot an upgrade.

In SLU’s case, the idea was to refresh the school’s mascot — a mythical creature called a Billiken — to more closely align with the visual identity of SLU’s new athletic logo, which was unveiled last November. SLU unveiled the new mascot last month with some fanfare between soccer games. The event involved mascots from other St. Louis area sports teams, special rally towels, and fan photo opps with the newly made-over mascot.

SLU was following a marketing practice known as “surprise and delight” — but in this case, the surprise wasn’t so delightful to many fans. Students, alumni and others took to social media (of course) to express their disdain for the new look. In their view, the lovable, cartoonish, Seussian Billiken had transmogrified into something creepy. Perhaps it was intended to look more aggressive and ferocious than the old version. But some fans weren’t so supportive of the change. One St. Louis media outlet said the mascot was a flop, “a lot like New Coke.”

To their credit, SLU administrators acted quickly. Within two weeks of the new mascot reveal, the university said it would take another shot at redesigning the mascot.

“SLU has heard the comments from alumni and students who care about the Billiken,” SLU President Fred P. Pestello told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “We are pursuing changes to the mascot,” but the new logo was staying, he said.

“Surprise and delight” might work for branding and marketing initiatives in the corporate world. But in higher education, where consensus rules the day, it’s better to get people on board with a project ahead of time. Because sometimes when you spring a surprise on your constituents, they can react in ways that could surprise you.


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.

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