The University of Colorado provides a handy how-not-to lesson in re-branding

The University of Colorado recently announced that it “will be phasing out its hodgepodge of logos, replacing them with a standard CU symbol.” University spokesman Ken McConnellogue says that “It’s important for the University of Colorado to be consistent and coordinated with its messages and images. In a world where people are bombarded by images and messages, we can’t afford to be fragmented and disconnected in how we present ourselves.”

I have no problems with this in principle. That said, CU got skinned. The university paid Landor, a brand consulting and design firm, $780,000 to conduct this project, and if you’re thinking that sounds like a lot of money for a modest deliverable, I tend to agree with you. I’m not especially comforted by the disclaimer, either: “The branding project was paid for with money from the president’s initiative funds, which is interest earnings on CU’s investments. No tuition, donor or state funds were used to pay for the project, McConnellogue said.” That’s a rhetorical tapdance of precisely the sort I’d expect out of the office of CU’s president, an anti-intellectual climate disruption denialist whose appointment was one of the worst ideas in Colorado education history. Regardless of which pile the bean-counters say the cash comes from, it’s university money that could have invested in other ways, isn’t it?

You Paid $780,000 for What?

CU does have lots of logos floating around (more here), and as a guy who has brand nazi responsibilities in several past jobs, I can sympathize with the desire to have a clean, unified visual representation of the organization out there in the public eye. When I was at US West, for instance, we had to go through a logo purge process because it seemed like every three-person sub-department in the 40,000+ employee company felt entitled to its own logo, and a good number of those logos were unflattering bastardizations of the One True Brand Mark. So there’s nothing wrong with wanting coherent, consistent visual communication from all corners of the organization.

But an entity like the University of Colorado has an obligation to invest its money wisely. This is especially true when it operates in an context of financial scarcity driven by half-witted legislation like Douglas Bruce’s “Taxpayer Bill of Rights.” So what did get for its money?

Well, Landor’s study apparently concluded that the CU community felt positively about the old interlocking CU design, which you see in some form or another everywhere in the state. So far, so good. You want to rally beneath a flag that the troops feel good about.

Then, one assumes, Landor recommended that CU needed to 86 all the micro-logos associated with its various programs. Sure – that makes perfect sense. And a little video rationalizing it all – check.

Finally, we need a “new” uber-logo, which you see at the top of this post. Nice, clean, leverages the legacy of the university’s traditional look and feel, etc. Except … boy, does it really leverage the traditional logo or what? Compare with these (in the second, pay attention to the letters, not Ralphie).

I know a number of talented designers who I’m convinced could have conceived and executed this transformation in two hours. I know for a fact that I have seen them do more impressive things in two hours.

In brief, had CU hired my little marketing strategy firm, we could have done what Landor did for a fraction of the cost. And this isn’t like your drunk brother-in-law at Thanksgiving dinner bitching about how he could have won more football games than Dan Hawkins did, either. I actually have done better for less. A couple of years ago my team (headed by the incredibly talented Marti Smith) developed a corporate identity suite (including logo) for a company that had almost no visual or brand legacy to draw on. We conducted a thorough, very detailed market analysis of who we were and who we needed to be to drive greater awareness of our services. We developed an extensive collateral library. We built an excellent Web site (although not one with lots of bells and whistles, since the company didn’t need them). And then we went to war with a primary competitor that was literally thousands of times larger than we were. Two years later, it could be argued credibly that we had won the fight.

We did the corp ID, collateral and Web dev for less than $100,000. As for the rest of the CU project, I’m sure the agency put in plenty of hours studying the case in good faith, but I’m not at all sure they produced results that a smart CU marketing grad couldn’t have managed in an afternoon. It appears, to my moderately trained eye, like CU went butterfly hunting with a howitzer. And howitzers cost a good deal more than butterfly nets.

I can’t really blame the agency, of course. They look like they’re very good at what they do and successful businesses can be counted on to charge what the market will bear. But I promise you, they’ll never use the CU case as an example of their resourcefulness.

Logos Ain’t Brands

Another thing that troubles me is the way this whole process seems to conflate “brand” with “logo.” It was billed as a “re-branding,” when what was mainly tackled was the issue of corporate identity – that is, the visual communication associated with brand marks.

As my friend and colleague Anders Gronstedt always pointed out, your logo isn’t your brand. And brand doesn’t reside in the corporate brand group. Instead, brand is a richly complex dynamic that lives and breathes along each customer touchpoint – that is, the various places where your organization intersects your various audiences. This can happen when they see your ad on TV. It can happen as they’re trying to unravel the latest bill. It certainly happens when they have to spend 15 minutes on hold with customer service and they then get jacked around by a rude call center employee. It happens when they discover something cool that your service does for them that they didn’t know. And it endures – your brand is a meme, a virus that lives on in their memories, so that every time they remember dealing with you it activates all over again, for good or ill.

The words the university used in announcing the new standard express the idea clearly enough:

Branding is more than logos. It is the emotional feeling our key constituents have about CU as a result of their perceptions and interactions with us. We can help shape that feeling by being consistent in how we present ourselves with messages and visual images.

The effort will help us convey our strengths and value in our primary areas of excellence and impact: learning and teaching, discovery and innovation, health and wellness, and community and culture.

These words went out to the CU community in a January 12 memo from the “Office of the President,” but I’d bet my life savings they were pulled from boilerplate language developed by Landor. Good brand people know this, and university administrators, in my experience, often don’t.

Here’s the problem, and I’ll use myself as an example. The CU brand where this customer is concerned (I earned my PhD from CU in 1999) is conflicted as hell and getting worse. On the one hand, it incorporates the invaluable experiences I had as a student. It exists within a visual context of one of the most beautiful campuses in the US. It integrates an enduring sense of incredibly hard work. It thrives on brilliant professors like Willard Rowland, Michael Tracey, Stuart Hoover, Jan Whitt, Bob Trager, Polly McLean and Ericka Doss. It’s a brand that reminds me of the outstanding students I was privileged to work (and in some cases live) with, people like Dr. Denny, Wendy Redal, Lynn Clark, Greg Stene and Peter Vassiliev. It’s the place associated with what is probably the proudest moment of my professional life.

On the other hand, CU’s brand includes football scandals, a president who’s an abject embarrassment, the Ward Churchill debacle, the dismantling of the school that awarded me my doctorate, Max Karson, and a string of incidents where the university unfairly took my money because it could.

Branding Irony

And now, unfortunately, the CU brand has been tainted by a foolish, wasteful “re-branding” project that sucked valuable cash out of a cash-strapped system and pumped it into the coffers of a branding agency. The irony is very nearly tangible, especially when we consider the above-linked internal memo’s assertion that all of those sub-brands “not only confuse our audiences, which are already overwhelmed by a tremendous volume of images and messages, but also are an inefficient and ineffective use of resources.” [emphasis added]

In the end, I’m not sure any re-branding took place at all. Obvious conclusions were reached. Existing logos were mildly retouched. Lots of money changed hands.

And the University of Colorado inadvertently reinforced some existing, negative brand perceptions.

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7 replies »

  1. I have long since given up trying to explain the difference between brand (identity) and Brand. Landor is a fine firm and I have worked with them multiple times, but they position themselves as do IBM and McKinsey–“the choice that doesnt get you fired by the board.” Thus you pay a 30% CYA premium on top of a fair fee.

  2. There’s not going to be an objective answer to the brand vs identity question, but it has always seemed logical enough to be that the visual communication elements were a part of the big-B Brand. Only a part, though. There’s not a logo in the world that could salvage an Enron, although companies do try changing their names when things get ugly (Diebold tried it, for instance, and I’m sure BP’s American division wishes there were a simple solution to the mess they created last summer).

  3. A sprawling university like CU isn’t a goddamn brand. And I rather like the unbranded messiness of the current situation. It suggests diversity, dynamism, independence, an intellectually entrepreneurial spirit among faculty, an amazing collection of efforts to understand the world, etc., etc.

    And what’s next? Will the CU Politburo come after my blog? . . . Well, I’d better shut up now.

  4. For me, here’s the money line from the CU flack coupled with a journalistic failure by the Daily Camera:

    “We not only expect to recoup the cost of the project, but we expect to have a substantial return on our investment beyond that initial money we paid.”

    I did not see in the Camera story answers to the obvious questions: How much, how soon, and how?