Well, that didn’t go very well, did it?
Boy, you hate to pile on the new University of California logo, especially when the pile is reaching Empire State Building levels. And in the interest of fairness, here’s someone from the East Bay Express attempting to add a little perspective to the controversy over what some are making out to be the biggest branding mistake since someone decided to call one overexposed celebrity couple “Bennifer.” Plus here’s Merc columnist Scott Herhold admitting in public that he actually likes the thing.
But having said all that, an informal poll of anyone who has expressed an opinion to us over the last 48 hours has given the logo a big thumbs down. And when we say “informal poll,” we mean unsolicited and spontaneous effusions, most of which contain the word “sucks.” As one person told us: “When I first saw it I thought it was a hoax.” (Personally, I don’t get the fading yellow C, which in my own semiotic Rorschach test denotes “long, slow decline.”)
Okay… so everyone’s a critic. UC, for its part, is defending the logo and the process by which it was created, saying a mistaken impression has been fostered that what it’s calling a “small monogram” is going to replace the traditional University of California seal.
“The seal signifies the prestige and tradition of the university itself, and is a treasured part of the UC identity,” said one UC official on the system’s web site. “There has never been any plan to replace it with the monogram.” (The university does say in its University of California Brand Guidelines, though, that “The UC monogram with the [words] ‘University of California’ serves as the primary graphic identifier of the university for systemwide communications.”)
So KQED’s Joshua Johnson decided to ask an actual branding expert about, you know, just what the hell happened. Here’s an edited version of the interview with Paul Parkin, a founding partner of SALT Branding, a San Francisco-based consulting firm whose clients have included AT&T, Coca-Cola and Xerox.
JOSHUA JOHNSON: First, tell us what branding is and what purpose it serves…
SALT BRANDING’S PAUL PARKIN: Branding is the way companies and organizations connect with people. They tell them about what they do, what their products are, and hopefully build a connection about why they should care about them.
JOHNSON: What was your reaction to the new University of California logo?
PARKIN: I see something unfocused. It doesn’t have any of the associations I expect from the UC system. It just left me a little flat.
JOHNSON: The brand guidelines for UC’s new logo have language like ‘visionary’, ‘pioneering, ‘ ‘audacious,’ and ‘boldly Californian.’ Is that the kind of thing one can even boil down to a single image or does it take more than that?
PARKIN: Logos are sort of the tip of the iceberg. They’re the things that in the most shorthand, simplistic way customers see in their communications. But the reality is logos are just the first part of an entire communications strategy where you’re really trying to connect with people on lots of different levels.
JOHNSON: How common are rebrandings like this nowadays, particularly in education?
PARKIN: I think this is becoming more and more common in education. Businesses have done this now for years; most companies go through some kind of rebranding every 10 years or so. They want to make sure they’re relevant.
But what we’re seeing in education is this shift happening very quickly. The entire education world is transforming from a very traditional print-based system to a digital-based system. Every school we brand in the education space wants to make sure it’s communicating that it’s part of that new world.
JOHNSON: The university says the old logo did not show up properly on digital devices, and that a simpler logo would show up more cleanly. How big of a concern should that be?
PARKIN: There are some practical things that you have to think about when you’re designing things for mobile or other applications. But the reality is the quality of so many devices is so good, you can still keep a more ornate logo if that’s relevant to your company.
JOHNSON: Ultimately what difference do you think this will make? At the end of the day won’t we still judge UC by things like funding, admission rates, and the quality of education rather than a logo?
PARKIN: Of course. Brands have reputations they built over years, or in some cases hundreds of years. The brand or logo is a representation of that but is only part of the story, even though it’s a very visible part.
JOHNSON: What’s the best way forward for the university now that this is out there and drawn so much derision?
PARKIN: Their biggest problem is they should have spoken to their students before they did it. Today with the social media opportunities we have, more and more brands are reaching out to their students and customers to engage with them, to find out what theyr’e looking for, or more important to really communicate what it is they’re trying to do. So that the students don’t just look at it as, well it’s a good or bad logo, they think of it as here is my school trying to do something different. Do I understand that and does it make sense to me? They missed that opportunity, but they can still reach out, they can still talk to their students.
JOHNSON: It seems like Stanford’s typeface change is much more similar to what came before, whereas UC’s change is dramatically different. How much does that factor into how people perceive it?
PARKIN: No one likes change. We’re all very used to seeing something the same way, and then when it changes it surprises us, so people tend to have a very subjective reaction. Stanford’s is a more evolutionary approach, UC is more revolutionary. There are times that revolution is the way to go – you may have a problem and you need to signal a very distinct change. And that may be what UC feels it needs to do as an organization.
JOHNSON: Is there ever a point when an organization needs to just say look, this is what we’re doing, and we’re moving ahead despite the criticism?
PARKIN: There are organizations that do that. It’s a bit of an old-school way of doing things. I think today people are looking for engagement. You can speak to people, you can understand what’s going on, and then you can come out with the same goals, the same vision, but bring the people that support you along so they understand what you’re trying to do.
Update Dec 13: Here’s a video posted last month from the UC Office of the President. It starts with the back of a hand sweeping the traditional seal off of a page and replacing it with the new monogram.