Case Study: University of California Branding
Ed. note: This case study is a selection from the 2013 “Justified” competition, for which an esteemed jury identified 14 submissions that demonstrate the value of design in a clear, compelling and accessible way. To learn more about the jury’s perspective on this selection, see the juror comments.
The University of California (UC) system is unlike any other. More than half of its 10 campuses rank among the top 100 universities in the world. The faculty currently includes 27 Nobel Laureates and the system generates more than $4 billion a year in research funding. Nearly 40 percent of UC graduates are the first in their family to earn a degree. But these realities were mostly lost on a disconnected and disengaged public. Connecting the dots was our challenge.
To better understand the issues, the marketing communications department studied past surveys and market research, audited a hodgepodge of disjointed UC websites and publications, and consulted with colleagues throughout the UC system. This research revealed that the economic and societal impact of the overall UC system had never been clearly communicated.
The recession both complicated and necessitated UC’s in-house efforts to create a system brand and tell UC’s collective story. In 2009, the UC system received a $500 million cut in state funding that wound up totaling nearly $1 billion over a four-year period. Tuition and fees dramatically increased; employees across the system faced layoffs and furloughs.
Our branding mission took on a new sense of urgency. Spurred by increasing state disinvestment in the university, we had to convey not only where UC was headed but also why it deserved Californians’ support.
To understand the climate and build support and buy-in for our work, we conducted more than 70 in-depth interviews with leaders across the university system, institutional competitors, government and business officials, higher education policymakers and thought leaders. We held focus groups with voters, employers, prospective students and UC constituent groups, including faculty, staff, alumni, parents and students. We quantified all this information in a massive baseline study of 2,000 California voters and more than 10,000 alumni and parents across the system. At every step in the process, we shared research-based insights in briefings to various groups throughout the university.
Through our preliminary outreach and research we learned that Californians generally support higher education and the university system but worry that rising costs, higher academic standards and increased competition could limit their ability to access UC. In addition, people were unaware of the scope of UC’s work beyond its undergraduate mission. They didn’t connect the UC brand with its ten hospitals, five medical centers, three national laboratories, statewide agriculture outreach and a panoply of additional resources. Only 44 percent of California voters surveyed believed that UC had a direct impact on their lives. Alumni and parents reported similar feelings.
We had our marching orders. In telling UC’s story, we needed to:
- Be more proactive and creative in order to cut through a cluttered media landscape
- Create relevance by authentically representing how Californians encounter UC each day
- Convey UC’s vision for the future of higher education and its role within California
- Reveal the essential qualities of the university
- Ground our effort in what it means to be a Californian—to live, work and play in a state unlike any other
Our brand had to be bold and different, like California itself. This notion formed the basis of our vision, and UC’s promise of delivering public value was at the core of the brand message. We built a strategy around communicating how UC embodies the ambition of California and ignites the potential of its people. The concept, dubbed “Boldly Californian,” wasn’t a tagline, but it certainly served as a conceptual touchstone for our work.
We also developed a tone and personality for communicating our message, guided by a selection of desired attributes—pioneering, optimistic and experimental—that came directly from our research. These characteristics not only reflect the work and spirit of UC’s campuses, but they blend nicely with an ethos defined by big personalities, big dreams and big ideas brought to life in Silicon Valley, Hollywood and beyond.
Change is risky, and the challenge is even greater when you’re creating a unified identity for a university system made up of 10 distinct campuses, each with their own brand. Therefore our team’s visual strategy had to be as malleable as the “boldly Californian” positioning. After considering hundreds of possible designs, we opted for an approach that had its roots in the traditional UC seal but reflected a forward-looking institution. While the logo component of the visual identity was never intended to replace the seal, it retained the shape of the top of the book that appears within the seal’s center. Other elements of the original seal served as the conceptual foundation for the rest of the visual vocabulary. A gradient graphically expressed both the rays of light found on the seal and the phrase, “Let there be light.”
The logo was intended as just one part of a broad visual identity system that also included a new color palette and a new approach to typography, photography and other visual elements. We consciously built a flexible and dynamic visual system that would bend to support the different communications challenges we faced.
Throughout the development process, we moved very cautiously, in part because we wanted to give the UC community a chance to react to the changes, and in part because we wanted to give ourselves the space to make adjustments based on feedback. In addition, we were concerned about creating the impression that we were “wasting” resources during a fiscal crisis.
We also made it clear that the new identity elements wouldn’t supplant existing campus logos or the university’s seal. We presented the logo to our colleagues and leadership across the system, showing how it would appear in ads, in publications and on websites. Before using the identity more publicly, we tested it with a panel of prospective students and included it in an online survey of more than 3,000 alumni, parents and employees.
We began slowly, introducing elements of the visual identity on the university’s centralized admissions site in the fall of 2010, and gradually developed, deepened and refined the breadth of the visual identity throughout the next 12 months.
In the summer of 2012, we launched “Onward California,” a public outreach and engagement campaign—paid for with funds from a private endowment established for outreach activities—to boost awareness of UC’s value, stimulate fundraising and public advocacy, and complement campus marketing efforts. The message was simple: The University of California, or a UC graduate, has played a part in your day.
Print, radio, television, digital advertising and a corresponding website (onwardcalifornia.com) amplified the brand platform and visual identity to highlight real-life examples of UC’s societal contributions including breakthroughs in medical research, inventions like the neoprene wetsuit and the university’s role as an incubator for more than 600 startup companies.
Although feedback specific to the logo was varied, the attributes associated with it—clean, unique and modern—were positive. When visual elements, including the logo, were displayed in the ways that they might be used, respondents gave them extremely positive reviews. Prospective students loved them.
In September and October of 2012, we brought the campaign to residents in unexpected ways. A 25-foot food truck, wrapped in the UC logo, appeared at 30 different locations, including all 10 UC campuses and major public venues like the Santa Monica Pier and Venice Beach. The tour attracted more than 60,000 people who snacked on free UC-themed gelato bars and posed for pictures holding messages proclaiming their support for UC, which they were encouraged to share via social media.
In late November 2012, following positive notices for the entire visual system in Fast Company and Brand New, the now infamous “UC logo controversy” was sparked by an article that first appeared on the San Jose Mercury News’ website and was promptly picked up by other news outlets and shared across social networks. Under the headline “University of California introduces a modern logo” sat a blurry, low-quality image of the new logo next to the 145-year-old UC seal.
The new logo had been specifically designed to be used in system-wide communications and marketing materials; it was never intended to replace the university’s seal, which the university would continue to use on diplomas and other official university documents. Nevertheless, in a flash, a false narrative was cast. By the next morning, 12,000 people had signed a “Stop the new UC logo” petition on Change.org. This number grew to 35,000 within 48 hours. The final tally was more than 54,000 signatures. The uproar made national news and was featured on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams. Six nights after the petition was launched, we shelved the logo in hopes of getting everyone refocused on the right issue: preserving what is often regarded as the best public university system in the world.
We walked away from the logo itself in part because we knew that our broader communications strategy and the other elements of the visual identity system could advance without it. Being able to move on with other elements of our work and the rest of the visual system is actually a tribute to the symbol’s success and our overall strategy.
We believe that everyone in higher education communications and graphic design writ large should reflect on the UC situation, particularly in the current climate of near-universal funding cuts, disruptive innovations such as massive open online courses (MOOCs), the increasing shift toward adult education and certification, mounting competition for research dollars, and growing ambitions over the recruitment of international faculty and students.
Brands and identities are built and accrue meaning over time. The best brands continually evolve. At UC, we believe we’ve built a solid, strategic brand foundation that is much more than any one symbol. So, in typical California spirit, we’re moving onward.