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UC Logo Controversy Shows Why Engagement Matters

Posted by: Miriam Stone & Kurt Munger on December 14, 2012

University of California Logo Controversy 

We all know that brands are more than just logos. Yet without careful planning, the launch of a new logo can result in a reaction that places undue focus on the visual elements in isolation. After all, logos are powerful symbols. They can trigger emotions, surface memories and subconsciously influence our opinions of brands.

University logos are no exception. Some of our most formative years are literally spent living the brand – sleeping in its dorms, wearing its clothing, graduating with its diploma. So it should have come as no surprise to the University of California system that its newly designed logo sparked emotional reactions.

Indeed the passionate response from students, who are no strangers to protests, and alums who remain deeply connected to their alma maters should come as no surprise. Although the logo will not live alongside logos from individual campuses and does not replace the university seal, the community feels strongly enough that more than 50,000 people have signed a petition to stop its use.

Even organizations with much bigger budgets for such endeavors find that launching a new logo can be a complex thing to pull off. Just ask The Gap, Kraft Foods and Tropicana, to name a few.

Psychologically, people tend to like things that are familiar, so we can feel attached to established logos without being able to articulate why. Logos are also inherently subjective; if our first sight of a new logo is through an outraged friend’s Facebook post, we might be quicker to jump on the bandwagon than if we’d stumbled across it on our own.

Yet the University of California did not seem to plan for a strong reaction from their engaged community. They launched the new logo and visual system more than a year ago with little fanfare. Their brand website provides no information about the strategic need for a logo refresh, save for a video showing the visual evolution of the logo and visual system.

Without a strong business rationale for why the logo needed to change and what the design was meant to achieve, people were left to scrutinize the aesthetics alone. Confusion abounded about the role of the new logo. (The blog Teaching Design provides an excellent breakdown of the misunderstanding).

At Interbrand, we believe that great brands generate involvement and participation. They invite people into an experience instead of just talking at them. While the University of California initially sidestepped – intentionally or not – a meaningful dialogue with its stakeholders, that conversation can no longer be avoided. How the organization reacts now will be a true test of the strength of its brand, regardless of what its logo looks like.

Miriam Stone is a Senior Consultant, Strategy for Interbrand San Francisco and Kurt Munger is Creative Director, Interbrand San Francisco.

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