Eduvation Blog

Cautionary Tales & Cautious Rebrands

For the next few episodes, Ken Steele returns to the Brand Chemistry™ Lab to analyze recent trends in higher ed brand identities and marketing campaigns. This week, we look at some notable brand mis-steps that have become cautionary tales for campus marketers, and the inevitable result: some very cautious, gradual rebrandings that don’t risk passionate opposition from traditional-minded stakeholders like students, faculty, and alumni.

Particularly for smaller, remote institutions experiencing the early effects of declining demographics, it’s critical to develop the visibility a strong brand can support. In recent years, many higher ed institutions have hired top-notch ad agencies to develop their visual identities and marketing campaigns, but there are definite risks to that approach. Branding an academic community is significantly more political a process than branding a consumer product like beer or fast food. Presidents don’t have the authority of corporate CEOs, faculty aren’t as compliant as typical employees, and students are a complete wild card. Not only does the process demand patience and plenty of consultation, but it also demands a marketer’s “A” game; a campus full of brilliant critical thinkers will quickly find any fault possible.

Cautionary Tales:

In Fredericton New Brunswick, St Thomas University’s student union discovered what happens when a design for your orientation week program is actually plagiarized from a broadway musical.

The University of Dayton, in Ohio, launched a new brand for its Flyers athletics, which was promptly criticized by students for appearing to promote venereal disease instead.

The University of California system attempted to launch a new, modern icon to unite the ten campuses in the UC system. But stakeholders objected to the ugly graphic, which suggested nothing so much as a flushing toilet.

And the University of Waterloo undertook an extensive strategic rebranding process in 2008, only to be sideswiped at the last moment when the proposed logo was leaked online.

Cautious Rebrandings:

In part because of these prominent brand debacles, many college and university rebrandings in recent years have been extraordinarily cautious and traditional.

Brandon University, in Manitoba, launched a new visual identity based on their traditional coat of arms in late 2014. Although it dropped the Greek motto, and streamlined the crest to focus on the shield, it retained the colour scheme and didn’t stir up opposition. The new look, sans serif typeface, and bold chevron create a much more contemporary and professional identity, without alienating traditionalists.

The Université du Québec en Outaouais redesigned its visual identity last year. Although the new UQO acronym is a starting departure in colour and typeface from the previous logo, both were pretty cold and corporate, and the change is unlikely to generate much passion one way or the other. The new marketing campaign, “Être plus près, aller plus loin” (be closer, go further) is a pretty common tagline for a regional institution speaking to local students.

The University of Ottawa launched a new brand identity in late 2014 that also followed a university marketing convention, in urging students to “Defy the Conventional.” But the new campaign, featuring bright neon colours and cartoon-like illustrations, is a notably creative variation on the theme.

Finally, a different sort of caution is evident in the gradual “unbranding” of Cape Breton University. In late 2014, CBU announced a new brand that used only a “temporary wordmark” set in the most boring typeface possible, and the single bold word “Happen.” The brand concept looks intriguing, although the creative executions haven’t really appeared yet. In fact, CBU deliberately went a full year without a logo, perhaps to help minimize opposition from those who might have been fierce defenders of the previous visual identity. The new logo for CBU is expected imminently, but this “slow-motion” rebranding process is yet another way to cope with passionate stakeholders attached to the status quo.


Next week, we’ll look at some examples of intentionally provocative brands and campaigns, deliberately courting controversy. It happens more often than you might think, and the results can be striking.

Just #ICYMI, check out Mount St Vincent University’s new recruitment campaign, featuring 15-second ads using thousands of dominos as a metaphor for the student’s path.


And by the way, remember that Ken Steele is available to consult on institutional brand strategy, deliver presentations or facilitate workshops about institutional differentiation and recruitment marketing.  More information

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