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The UC Logo Flop: A Study in Brand Dissonance

Posted by on January 9th, 2013
Posted in Blog, Nonprofit Branding, Nonprofit Design   

In the midst of the media storm of negativity surrounding the University of California’s new logo, a small voice of opposition to the opposition arose— one that disagreed with the anti-logo sentiment pervading public discourse.

Graphic designer Armin Vit of Brand New, wrote:

“It really baffles me that, all of a sudden, one day, all these people decided to pay attention to the logo of the university system that manages their own specific university, which have logos of their own — which, by the way, are nothing to be graphically proud of — and that there is a sudden admiration of this system’s seal. I have never seen so many people so passionate about a seal. A seal that looks exactly like a hundred other university seals.”

Addressing the UC Regents, Vit presses further:

“Trust the decisions you have made. Don’t succumb to the mob. They do not — DO NOT — know better than you. If you are asking yourself, “But 50,000 people can’t all be wrong.” Read their comments, not a single person has identified what makes the seal so effective or proven how the new logo will bring the school to ashes.”

Two days after he wrote the piece, UC officials announced their suspension of the logo.

Indeed, it’s likely that only a small percentage of the thousands were graphic designers or brand experts. So why did the logo naysayers win?

We can start by asking: why did over 50,000 people sign a Change.org petition to protest “a seal that looks like a hundred other university seals”? Why, exactly, did these 50,000-plus individuals suddenly, in the words of Vit, all of a sudden “decide” to care?

The diagnosis? A severe case of brand dissonance. Tens of thousands of people were confronted with an image that was completely alien to their idea of the University of California brand.

At Mission Minded, we often remind clients that your brand is not your logo. Your brand is the sum of the thoughts, feelings, and ideas that come to mind when your target audiences think of you. As Vit helpfully points out: “A logo… means nothing. It derives meaning from what it represents.”

Precisely. The UC leadership attempted to replace a logo that holds tremendous power, not because of flawless, timeless design, but because of the 100+ years of meaning that it holds. They tried to replace it with a contemporary graphic icon that, for the constituents of the University of California system, represented close to nothing.

What little meaning it had was gained from an association with the UC Office of the President, the same administration that in recent years has dramatically increased the tuition to UC schools and dealt with lawsuits over the brutality by their own police force.

The timing was not ideal, to say the least.

What we’ve seen is a widespread emotional reaction to an experience of brand dissonance. It was, and continues to be, a negative reaction to the top-down imposition of a visual representation that looked and felt shockingly inconsistent and deeply divergent from their personal experience, memory, and mental image of the University of California—in other words, the UC brand.

In a way, this whole mess is demonstrative of the deep, intangible power of brand. For people to react so negatively, so strongly to an image that doesn’t match their idea of the UC system, reveals the positive power of the UC brand. And some might say it’s indicative of another brand that has formed in the public conscience: the brand of the UC Office of the President. That one, perhaps, isn’t so positive.

Brand dissonance, as I’m defining it, results from an inconsistency between the established brand architecture of an organization or company, and a brand message—direct or indirect, visual or verbal—that the organization disseminates.

Brand dissonance is especially felt with organizations that are highly visible and recognized. If your local coffee shop changes their logo, it may take time for you and your neighbors to adjust to the new image, but the chances of widespread protests are slim. If Nike changes their swoosh to an arrow, thousands would likely be immediately up in arms.

A possible counter: isn’t the UC logo fiasco just representative of the fallout resulting from a bad design job?

Let’s go back to 2010, when Gap attempted to change its logo. (Needless to say, it was a spectacular failure.) At the time, Mission Minded’s co-founder Zach Hochstadt blogged about the quick death of the new identity:

“We have emotional relationships with brands. We associate brands with experiences and ideas, and a good logo directly connects with that association. When we disconnect an idea from one icon and try to connect it to another, we are essentially asking the public to learn a new word.”

The University of California, like Gap, asked the public to replace a globally-recognized “word” with a new one—one that had no meaning or equity.

Naturally, the question arises: is there ever a good time to change your logo—or even a good way to introduce one? If we look back to Zach’s post in 2010, we find our answer: when your logo no longer accurately reflects your brand, and there is brand dissonance between your current reputation (one that you are happy with, of course) and your old logo, it’s time to change. However, as the 54,383 signees of the Change.org petition reminded us, a brand identity switch should not be taken lightly. If your organization decides to take on the exciting challenge, make sure you think about the needs and concerns of your audiences—and communicate with them about what’s in store—every step of the way.


Sandra Fernandez is a Mission Minded Strategist. She applies her creative and editorial skills, and her passion for socially-conscious causes, to assist organizations with social media development, copyediting, writing, research, and more.

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