New UC logo: Marketing blunder? Or is storm of criticism overblown?

The venerable University of California traded in its traditional logo for something modern, eliciting a New Media blast of derision. Some experts say the storm over the new UC logo will pass.

Oakland Tribune/AP
This image shows the old logo of the University of California, left, with the new logo.

The University of California – one of the most prestigious public universities in the world – redesigned its logo to stay abreast of the times and attract new students.

But the move last week appears to have accomplished just the opposite, and university officials are trying to figure out what to do next.

The venerable university system has been hit with a New Media revolt that includes insults on Twitter, e-mail memes that mock the new look, Facebook spoofs, and calls for the new representation to be tattooed on its creator’s foreheads.

Experts say the episode is a cautionary tale on the dangers of image and marketing changes.

Here’s the background: for 144 years, the 10 campuses have been collectively represented by a traditional-looking, round logo with a “Let There Be Light” motto, a drawing of an open book and a radiating star.

The new logo is essentially rectangular, with a form that approximates the old seal’s open book but which also could pass for a stylized “U.” On top of that is the top half of the letter “C” which could be, depending on whom you ask, a napkin doodle, a bidet, or a banana label.

“This is an attempt to be revolutionary, but it comes off as insensitive,” Reaz Rahman, a UC Irvine senior who started an online petition to get the university to reconsider, told the Los Angeles Times. “To me, it didn’t symbolize an institution of higher learning. It seemed like a marketing scheme to pull in money rather than represent the university.

“New UC logo is an abomination,” wrote one Twitter-user, according to the Times. “Back to the drawing board.” Another tweeted, “Whoever signed off on this UC logo should be forced to have it tattooed on their forehead for life.”

“It is everything our school is against,” wrote Berkeley’s Sheila Lam on the petition, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. “Might as well have slapped a McDonald’s ‘M’ on top of it. It looks so corporate and it looks cheap.

It is the lack of a clear meaning for the redesigned logo that bothers some communications experts.

“This is kind of a classic branding screw-up where people who are designing it don’t understand the web environment that they are moving into,” says Mark Tatge, a communications professor at DePauw University in Indiana. “What are they trying to say? It doesn’t do any good if people don’t know what it means.”

He says it is legendary in the ad business to list off the number of cars that have failed to succeed in foreign countries because the model name meant something else in the language.

“This is just like ignoring what the symbol might mean in another context,” says Tatge.

UC officials counter that they trying to be cutting edge instead of stodgy to be attractive to students.

“We want to convey that this is an iconic place that makes a difference to California and that there is a UC system,” the UC system’s director of marketing communication, Jason Simon, told the L.A. Times.

The university is reminding everyone that the old logo will still appear on diplomas and the official letterhead, although the UC websites do now carry the new logo.

Marketing specialists say that such uprisings are typical when businesses or institutions try to change their image. Officials at the Gap clothing chain and Tropicana Pure Premium orange juice backtracked to using original logos after they made changes that triggered consumer protests.

But several say UC should just stand its ground, and allow some time for the initial shock to wear off.

“Change is hard. In a year, this will die down and the benefit will outweigh the legacy logo,” says Tom Drucker, a Marina Del Rey-based image specialist who focuses on new business models and idea management.

"All tweets are not the same – tweets about the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street obviously are of much greater import than Tweets mocking a new university logo,” says Paul Levinson, a professor of communications at Fordham University in New York and author of “New New Media.”

Objections from students to just about everything a university does is a time-honored part of university life, he notes.

“So, first, University of California officials should take a deep breath,” he says. “Twitter has magnified such objections, true, but that's also a good thing. Students are entitled to express their opinions.”

Still other analysts feel that the UC episode is not so much a screw-up as just a sign of the times, which once again spotlights the democratization of ideas and expression.

“It’s increasingly par for the course. It’s a great example of the democratization of individual voice bestowed upon people with Internet access,” says Bernard McCoy, associate professor of mass communications at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “Internet access means more people, regardless of title, economic standing, or experience, have a voice whose reach and audience is potentially global.”

But others say the whole episode is a tempest in a teacup, for the very same reason.

"This tells us nothing about UC or the wisdom of decision making. The only story here is a tired one these days – namely that social media have changed everything,” says Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today magazine.

“Ten years ago, the worst that would have happened with a logo change is that a couple of disgruntled alumni would have written complaint letters. Now, through crowding and viral processes, any trivial event can produce an uproar. In this case – as is often the case with social media – the uproar is as trivial as the event."

But Professor Levinson thinks the new media environment has created a situation that is different from previous decades, in that the protests are harder to brush off.

“What Twitter has done is make it impossible for the university to ignore those opinions,” says Levinson. “In the case of the logo, if the university agrees with the objections, the logo should be changed."

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