Diplomas or Helmets

Which logo is a university’s true brand identity?

A sampling of universities that have one logo for athletics (left) and one for academics (right)

Can you tell me whose logo this is below?

Here’s a hint, it is the #15 best university in the United States, and you’ve probably never seen their logo before.

The answer? You’ll have to read all the way to the end.

Next question.

Which of these logos represent “Oregon State University”?

I guess the correct answer is both, however, you probably feel more strongly about one of them based on what your relationship is to Oregon State Universtiy. For most of us who have not studied at Oregon State or have never been to Corvallis, the beaver logo on the right is what we correspond to the abstract idea of “Oregon State” in our minds.

Having two logos may make sense when you separate athletics and academics as two completely separate entities that accomplish two separate goals. But more and more, universities in the United States are seeing the power of having one strong unified visual brand and the benefits that come with it for both sides of the house.

THE PUSH TO “ONE BRAND”

Texas A&M (of which I am an alumnus and current employee) has one logo for athletics and academics.

Erik Bledsoe, Director of Creative Communications at the University of Tennessee, did a great job at laying out the case for a one-brand approach in 2015 when they made the switch to one logo for all aspects of their brand.

“We discovered, which was not shocking to any of us, that people associated more closely with the Power T, and that the Power T carried all of the sort of positive associations that we wanted our logo to carry; things like strength and quality and all of those,”

“It obviously is more closely associated with athletics, but especially with the audiences that were not internal, like prospective students, they had no associations with the [old academic] “UT” because what they’ve seen every day on television is the Power T.” (quote source)

Even though Tennessee had one of the better academic logos of the bunch (in that at least it wasn’t a detailed seal), they saw that it had no resonance with anyone outside of Knoxville. Switching to the nationally recognized “Power T” elevated the university’s brand to carry the passion, strength, and reputation that they had built with the likes of Peyton Manning.

As the one-brand approach is becoming more commonplace, in most if not all cases, the university takes on the athletic logo as it’s new all-encompassing mark.

A sampling of universities that use the one-brand approach

The University of Kentucky also opted to unify their brand look under the athletic logo (which recently had a Nike refresh itself). In fact, UK paid one of the most famous design/branding firms, Pentagram, $80,000 to help them with the change.

“…it is important to be consistent in the message you present to students, donors and all stakeholders. It’s just as important to express the brand visually in a consistent manner as well,”

Jay Blanton, Executive Director of Public Relations and Marketing (quote source)

Auburn is one of the latest to fall in line with the trend, announcing the unified approach in July of this year.

“In an effort to reinforce Auburn’s brand identity and to avoid confusion among national and international audiences, the university is moving toward unifying under one logo,”

Mike Clardy, Assistant Vice President for Communications and Marketing (quote source)

“Unification”, “less brand confusion”, “consistency”, “positive associations”, and tack on that athletic logos usually look better in the first place, it is hard to disagree with a one-brand approach.

But what about a middle ground?

THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE HOKIES

In September, Virginia Tech’s rebrand accomplished something that I had never seen before, heck, something I didn’t even think was possible.

Virginia Tech’s athletic “flying VT” (top) and the recent rebrand of the academic brand.

Recognizing the power of their athletic mark, they took the iconic “flying VT” and made it just different enough to create a unique academic mark that still gains most of the athletic brand equity. Interestingly, Brand New blogger Armin Vit says of the new Virginia Tech logo, “…ironically, the new academic logo looks more dynamic and sporty than the blocky athletics logo.”

So for maybe the first time, we have a university that has a better logo than their athletic department. (Highlight that last sentence and leave a comment with your thoughts)

REFINED BY USE

Academic logos don’t stand (and have never stood) a chance simply because athletic logos have all the right conditions for success. They had to be simple, distinctive, memorable, easy to view at far distances, usually only one or two colors, all because of how they were used and the limitations of embroidery and printing at the time. For years, teams have followed good design principles out of sheer necessity.

One of Texas A&M’s first websites in the early 2000s

Meanwhile, the academics were stamping intricate wax seals on diplomas and using it as their identifying mark. Not until the advent of the internet did universities have an identity crisis when forced to wrestle with their logo working on different mediums.

So as time passed and both logos grew up, it stands to reason that an athletic logo would end up being a better designed and versatile mark. Add on the brand equity that inherently comes with the passion in sports, and academic logos are out-muscled every time.

I admit it is easy to sit here and say every university should just merge to one logo. Working at Texas A&M, I see the benefits every day. However, I can’t imagine the terror of working somewhere else and staring down the barrel of a rebrand. As much as I believe it is the right thing in terms of design, brand equity, and common sense, the issue just has so much baggage. Higher Ed is categorically weighed down with bureaucracy and doing things based on “tradition for tradition’s sake”.

Should it happen? In most cases, yes.

Is it the right decision? Totally.

Will it be easy? Absolutely not.

Michael Bierut of the aforementioned Pentagram has a famous quote that, conveniently, is an athletic metaphor:

Branding is a marathon, not a sprint.

Yes, there will be angry donors. Of course, there will be students outraged just because they want a reason to be outraged. But that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong decision.

Oh and that logo at the beginning, that’s Vanderbilt.

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Michael Green

Vexillologist | Flag Designer | Owner of Flags For Good | As seen on TED