Viewpoints: UC logo - University wise to limit PR damage

From the Sacramento Bee - December 16, 2012




The whopping blunder committed by the University of California's image-makers and pilloried nationwide last week reminds me of a line from "The Gambler," that catchy '70s tune by country crooner Kenny Rogers.

You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to walk away, know when to run.       

Clearly, the UC leaders tried to convey the impression that they had heeded Kenny's advice when they suspended their controversial new logo on Friday. However, they doubled down and made matters worse when they refused to take ownership for their mistake and blamed the "false narrative" on the 60,000 people, including California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who signed an online petition opposing the logo.

In case you missed it, UC's internal design team came up with a new logo to supplement the one that has collectively represented its campuses for 144 years. The original, a round seal with a "Let There Be Light" motto, depicts a drawing of an open book and a radiating star. It calls to mind tradition, libraries, smart people, legacy.

Logo 2.0 was basically a rectangle, with a stylized blue "U" that reportedly is supposed to resemble an open book. On top of that is a portion of a yellow letter "C" that reminds people of a deformed banana, a dozing jungle larva, a toilet in mid-flush, or that annoying symbol you see when an Internet page takes forever to load. Art is in the eye of the beholder, but none of those connotations did much to boost UC's status in the world.

Playing defense as the Twittersphere exploded with sneers, jeers and worse last week, the university's marketing gurus said they wanted a design that would help them "tell the UC story in an authentic, distinctive, memorable and thoughtful way."

I say, you've got a great product. You've got 59 Nobel laureates. You've got the most powerful collection of brains in any single educational system on the planet. You've got loyal alumni. You've got flagship campuses mentioned in the same breath as Harvard, Yale and Stanford. You've got gravitas.

So why choose to devalue all that with a logo that looks cheap, commercial and, at best, vague and poorly conceived?

In another era, the university might have pulled off the switch with only minor grumbling – a dozen letters from particularly passionate alumni, perhaps, or a few grouchy columns in campus newspapers. But in today's hyperactive social media climate, any faux pas can ignite a superstorm Sandy-level outpouring of snarkiness, and so it goes with Logo Gate.

A strong logo design can certainly help a failing product, but a badly designed logo does nothing more than devalue an entity's worth. The Gap learned this the hard way after unveiling a "contemporary and current logo" that was panned by critics as CRAP. To its credit, the Gap did an about-face and acknowledged its gaffe.

The Gap is a private entity, and such moves take on even more importance when the brand represents a public institution.

One cautionary tale unfolded in 2010, when Drake University in my hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, decided to rebrand itself as "D+," apparently hoping to stand out amid the deluge of college recruitment material received by the nation's high schoolers. For obvious reasons, the change sparked an instant uproar among offended students, alumni and donors.

Ultimately, weeks of abuse from students, alumni and marketing experts took a toll, and Drake University's newly enlightened president, David Maxwell, pulled the plug. As he said at the time, "We are an educational institution and we learn from our experiences."

So how can the UC system learn from this "teaching moment?"

The first step is admit that a mistake was made and not blame it on a false narrative; genuinely listen to the feedback; and pay attention to the context of the discussion.

If UC officials still believe a new logo is necessary, they might hold a design contest among alumni and students with a scholarship or donation as the prize.

Professional designers may scoff at this proposal, but this would give the California public a say over what happens with their public universities.

I certainly agree that after 144 years and a technology tidal wave that has revolutionized marketing, the University of California could benefit from some more contemporary branding.

But in this case, the insular design process – and the final product – sabotaged the good intentions.

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