The University of Calgary announced today that it is changing its branding. Again. The change is being hailed as a “refreshed system”, “more logically structured” and “streamlined”.
U of C shared a graphic of the “evolution” of its branding in recent decades:
Before 1966, the university was a satellite campus of the University of Alberta. In ’66 it gained its independence as its own institution. You can see the U of A logo in the upper left-hand corner.
Since becoming its own institution, the University of Calgary has had four distinct logos.
Notice what the University of Alberta looks like today:
It still looks pretty much the same as it did in 1966. For a university, arguably, that’s a good thing.
Universities are institutions where tradition, honour and stability are signs of prestige. The more venerable the institution, it seems, the less often it changes its logo. Here’s another example from the University of Cambridge in the U.K.:
Cambridge has been around since the year 1205 and yet, there is little historical evidence of much change in its visual branding during the past century at least.
You might argue and say, “Well, that’s an old university in Europe. We are talking about a North American university here.” Let’s consider the logo for Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.:
Georgetown opened its doors in 1789. There is a plaque embedded into the brick of one of its building with its crest. On the left, you see its current logo. There has been little change in its branding since 1789.
In branding one of the key elements is consistency over long periods of time. Think about McDonalds, Coca Cola or MGM films. You can instantly picture their logos or visual branding in your mind, right?
At institutions of higher learning, the branding isn’t just for the students of today. It is also for the alumni. Possibly even generations of alumni who feel that their experience at the institution forms part of their youth and their identity.
I have to ask myself how radically re-branding a university four times in half a century helps to great a sense of stability or connection over generations of alumni?
There are times when a re-brand is a good thing. If a product, organization or program developed a logo in its very early days that was not very professional — and it shows — then developing a new logo is a way to elevate its sophistication, prestige and overall image. But re-brands are not to be taken lightly in education — particularly not in higher education.
When a client hires me for an educational marketing consulting project, it is very rare that I recommend a complete re-brand of a program or a school. The risks of appearing inconsistent, flighty or unreliable more often than not outweigh the seduction of having something fresh and new.
When it comes to branding, stability and consistency and create a sense of legitimacy, credibility and trustworthiness. In turn, this builds the prestige and honour for the brand. Over time, the brand enjoys higher and higher levels of social esteem. Prestige and honour have to be earned by educational institutions, particularly in today’s world of “pop-up” schools and that takes time… much longer than a decade or two in most cases.
If you are thinking about a re-brand of your school or educational program, think about it long and hard. Weigh the benefits and the risks. Think about the long-term, rather than the short term. Consider the impact on generations of alumni.
Often, it’s better to invest the time upfront to develop a sophisticated logo, crest or shield than can outlive not only this generation of administrators, but the next five generations of administrators, too.
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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.