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Teachable moment: The University of California's logo debacle

Teachable moment: The University of California's logo debacle

Posting in Design

The University of California recently earned an "F" on its new university-wide rebranding. What should it have already learned from similar missteps in the business world?

Last year, the University of California created a new logo with the goal of updating its 144-year-old, stately school seal. The design featuring an open book and the words "Let There Be Light" worked well for formal letters and documents, but the school felt it was too stodgy for some marketing materials. What's more, its intricate nature made it hard to render in a small format and in digital collateral.

The new logo pulls just one small design element from the original seal, the profile of the open book. Otherwise, it is completely different. Created in a range of colors and iterations, the school emblazoned it on tote bags, mugs and even flip-flops. Ironically, it wasn't much noticed.

That all changed with a December 2012 news story by Katy Murphy in the Oakland Tribune. That piece, accompanied by a short promotional video from the school, led to an online petition that garnered more than 50,000 signatures weighing in on the new design.

The consensus: students, alumni, and even casual observers all hated the new look.

"Our diplomas better not have that new logo," wrote one commenter to Murphy's piece.

On Twitter, critics compared the design to an egg yolk swirling around a toilet bowl. In less than a week, the university decided to heed the overwhelming disapproval.

In a statement, the University of California (UC) senior vice president for external relations, Daniel Dooley, tried to make some lemonade out of the situation: "My hope going forward is that the passion exhibited for the traditional seal can be redirected toward a broader advocacy for the University of California."

While protests over the new logo mainly surrounded aesthetics, Brian Dougherty, principal creative director at Celery Design Collaborative in Berkeley, Calif., says there are bigger issues around the University's rebranding effort that could serve as a lesson to businesses considering their own identity changes.

"There is a deeper rejection," he says. "Putting a logo on something is a shortcut to creating cohesion, but in this case I think that cohesion is more of a fiction than in reality."

Umbrella Branding

The 10-campus California university system tried to bring all of the schools in the UC system under the same branding umbrella with the new logo. The problem with that, says Dougherty, is that each school has its own personality, and that's how things should remain. And an administration has no need for a logo, he contends.

"I'm local to Berkeley, and I think the notion that you'd clump Berkeley in with other UCs is sacrilege," Dougherty says.

When you think Northern California, you think Berkeley, when you think Southern California, you think UCLA, he argues. "At end of day, people had an allergic reaction to the notion that you're trying to meld together these really distinct places."

The same is true of large "house of brands" corporations, such as Procter & Gamble or Unilever. In the latter case, the logo is an amalgam not of the individual brands -- such as Dove soap or Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Rather, it's a collection of icons representing the types of products Unilever makes and the corporate values it wants to convey.

Unilever doesn't try to make its very disparate brands similar, since that wouldn't add value to any individual brand, nor for the company as a whole. The same is true, argues Dougherty, for the UC system. "The net-net for the UC system is that they didn't see themselves as a house of brands, but they are."

Wilted Tulip
Often, bringing disparate brands together is required through a merger, such as that of Continental and United Airlines in early 2010.

In that case, the companies were faced with the task of blending a beloved logo, United's "tulip" mark designed by Saul Bass in 1973, with Continental's stylized globe. The resulting new logo, which completely abandoned the tulip design, has been roundly criticized by designers, frequent fliers and even by casual observers. (Both logos are shown below.)

The lesson here is that a logo can hold up more than a single brand. The loss of the tulip was also the loss of an emblem of the aviation industry.

It's not so much that consumers loved United Airlines – in fact, Continental fared much better than United in customer surveys – but they loved the tulip logo that had come to represen the concept of mobility and the "miracle" of flight. A Facebook page even cropped up in an effort to save the tulip. Nearly two years after the merger, Facebook fans are still posting photos of the old United logo they find in dusty corners of airports.

#newlogofail
Another lesson in what not to do when changing a corporate logo can be drawn from Gap's recent redesign.

As a brand, Gap represents classic mainstream American. Its clothes are attainable but not overly trendy. The brand, and its blue square logo, have been staples of American consumerism. But, in late 2010, Gap introduced a new logo and you could hear the record-album of innocuous music come to a screeching halt.

The San Francisco-based firm replaced the doughty blue box with a logo that lacked panache, to put it mildly.

The design consisted of the word "Gap" in the Helvetica font, combined with an out-of-nowhere blue box hanging on the "p" like bad punctuation. The reaction was swift and negative. Within a day, the new logo became an Internet meme, with funny and ironic iterations of the new mark surfacing on social media and spreading like mad. There was even a Tumblr page devoted to a "Gapify" engine that would turn any iconic logo into a Helvetica version, with a small version of the original mark hanging above the final letter.The blog Brand New, published by graphic design firm Under Construction, posited that the new logo was perhaps just a brilliant publicity stunt. Indeed, if Gap wanted renewed attention, it got the desired effect with the bad logo.

In what appeared as an attempt to turn the misstep into an opportunity, Gap launched a crowdsourcing project to redo the new logo all over again, but within days it made another pivot and reverted back to square one and just reintroduced the old logo.

Bon Ami: A Lifelong Friend?
Mergers force logo changes, such as in the United-Continental situation. Changes in direction can also lead to logo reboots like Gap's. But some brands refresh their logos simply to remind consumers they are still on the shelf – and perhaps to remind them that the brand is still relevant or newly relevant.

Such was the case with the rebranding effort for Bon Ami. The cleaning product dates back to the 1800s and is "green by default because it came before chemical cleaners," Dougherty says. And that's the factor that its parent company chose to play up when it hired Celery Design to update update Bon Ami's logo and packaging.

"They had an interest in finding a way to appeal to a new audience," he says. "It was interesting because they were one of the greenest products on the market, but they weren't getting the buzz or excitement that Method and other new brands were getting."

Key to the rejuvenated logo was maintaining the heritage behind the cleaning product brand.

"This is similar with what Levi's has done – they don't throw away their identity, they re-contextualize it for contemporary times," Dougherty says. "It's kind of ironic, too, that the UC system de-emphasized its heritage [in its revamped logo], because heritage is so big right now."

Indeed, one of the biggest lessons offered by all these rebranding examples is the clear need to build a bridge that links historical brand equity with new business realities or a new business process.

"I think things are more interesting when they have the patina of history," Doughtery says.

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Mary Catherine O'Connor

Contributing Writer

Mary Catherine O'Connor has written for Outside, Fast Company, Wired.com, Smithsonian.com, Entrepreneur, Earth2Tech.com, Earth Island Journal and The Magazine. She is based in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure