Here is where the youngest possible adults collide with the most highly specialised experts. Each September, a new cohort of undergraduate and graduate students are tossed together into academic pressure cookers. Every July, a similar number graduate and leave. And, for a few brief years in between, they form communities as intense as they are temporary.

Add in a heady mix of big money and often storied history, and universities ought to be fertile ground for strange and wonderful new forms of place brand — not to mention that their transient populations make narrative continuity vital. But a cursory survey will tell you that that’s not always the case.

Heavyweight or heavy weight?

We spoke to someone who has just spent months staring at university websites: an applicant who has recently finished up a round of postgrad applications to US courses. He preferred to remain anonymous — university offers can be rescinded for any reason — but we’ll call him Max. Max has been around the university applications block: this will be his third course. By this point, he has industry experience and a more-than robust perspective of the branding on offer.

For the most part, this branding is remarkably similar. Max explained, “I don’t know if it’s because of institutional inertia or the weight of their reputations, but a lot of universities end up being wedded to a very traditional standard. They like to emphasise their historical credentials and honestly a lot of them end up looking the same.” The higher up the rankings it came, the more likely a university was to have curt communication and a logo that looked like 1994. “The top tier schools seem so convinced by their own superiority that they don’t end up reaching out.”

Complacency may be part of it, but universities need to attract students, academics and investors alike, and that means delicately straddling past and future. One foot must be kept firmly rooted on prestige and reputation — the more hundreds of years you can lay claim to the better — while the other foot inches forward in search of the next explosive paper, the next Nobel laureate, and an experience to attract the next generation. This is a tricky balancing act: the Université de Moncton caused a stir in 2015 by going too hard for the latter, when an admissions video featured a passionate library make-out session.

“I don’t know if it’s because of institutional inertia or the weight of their reputations, but a lot of universities end up being wedded to a very traditional standard.”

How Place Purpose is a guide for change

The annals of university design are littered with rebrands* that tried too hard to be modern. In 2015, King’s College London unveiled a new name “King’s London” and then swiftly veiled it again after over 12,000 people signed a petition against the change. The University of California’s bold new monogram with a striking blue and yellow gradient lasted a matter of months. University of Warwick students weren’t as successful in protesting its gradated redesign: the unremarkable original logo has been successfully replaced by a glowing purple gradient that resembles in application a pair of vampire teeth. Change is hard: even the elegant MIT logo was burned by students in a pit over roasting meat upon introduction in 2003.

So perhaps that logo from 1994 is good enough after all? Not so fast.

At DNCO, we have a principle to guide places through the messy business of rebranding complex places: Place Purpose. Whether creating or reinventing places, it’s all too easy to get caught in the weeds of it: how do I get there? Which organisations are based there? What are the shops like?

Place Purpose takes a step back and defines instead the essential reason a place exists based on human-centred needs. Disneyland, for instance, is more than a collection of rides and food vendors; it’s a place of magic where every child can encounter their favourite films come to life. And that’s because Disney commits to this purpose completely, from managing rubbish impeccably to training performers to never break character.

We can’t all be Disneyland. But it doesn’t matter so much what the answer is, as long as it’s yours. Place Purpose is what enables places to connect with people. It’s what makes academics click “apply now” and gives funders a sense of urgency. In an international academic community, it’s what defines a university brand’s profile on the world stage. And here universities ought to have a head start. A university, after all, is a collection of people already bound together by a like-minded purpose: they were selected deliberately that way and often had to prove it at an entrance interview. So what’s missing?

“The designers of the failed theme… had a shallow understanding of what we are up to here.”

One critique of the University of California’s visual identity rebrand

A rebranding cautionary tale

Let’s take a closer look at one of those failed rebrands. In an episode entitled The Brief and Tumultuous Life of the New UC Logo, podcast 99% Invisible (99PI) goes deep into the story of the University of California’s (UC) monogram. The design press largely praised this marque, which was to function as an additional overarching identity for the 10 campuses within UC’s university system. Rob Duncan, former art director at Apple, called it, “One of the freshest and most creative education identity schemes in a country full of boring institutional logos.” And the rollout was going well. By the time the backlash arrived, the new visual identity system had been around for nearly a year. As 99PI reported, “[The marketing campaign] took it on tour to all 10 campuses where they drove around a huge truck, with the logo and all the new colours and everything… and no one said a word.”

It was only later that an image of the monogram side-by-side with the classic university seal hit the press. Worse, UC’s own video implied that the monogram was replacing the crest. In the words of 99PI guest Christopher Simmons, “Of course, that wasn’t the case. It framed the conversation completely wrong.” The video had reinforced everyone’s greatest fear. What followed was a petition against it that garnered over 54,000 signatures — impressive even by university rebrand protest standards.

But the problem was not simply an incompetent rollout. Perhaps the most insightful comment lurks in the comment section of the podcast episode. Here a poster under the name of Avi Rosenzweig, student affairs officer at UC Berkeley, argues that the new logo “perpetuated the historical essentialisation of the west coast as ‘the natural frontier’ and… plays into exactly the kind of stereotypes that the early founders of the university were trying to avoid tangling with.” Berkeley is not simply an alternative to the Ivy League, he writes, “We are an evolutionary advancement and world-embracing development with our own centred subject-hood. The designers of the failed theme did not have UCB backgrounds… and they had a shallow understanding of what we are up to here.”

In so writing, Rosenzweig echoes the cry at the heart of hated place brands the world over: they didn’t understand our story.

“We literally ripped up every single degree programme we have and we rewrote that curriculum.”

Paul Marshall, pro-vice chancellor at the University of East London

Audiences can always tell

That’s why two of the chapters in our book on place branding, Know Your Place, focus on “research and insight” and “authenticity through action”. First, you need to profoundly understand the nature of a place and what people really want from it. This common sense is not commonly applied, with the property world pouring great deal of research into topics like terrazzo flooring and very little into topics like, “Why would anyone come here?” And then you have to speak it back to people authentically — using acts and deeds that deliver on what makes your place distinctive.

You can’t, as a rule, bullshit the general public. People have an unerring nose for inauthenticity, and that is often the root of rebrand protests. Speaking about Warwick’s vampiric rebrand, Hugh Osborn, a PhD student at Warwick told the Guardian, “The lack of proper consultation is symptomatic of how our university seems to care less about its students and more about its commercial backers.”

A superlative recent rebrand by the University of East London (UEL) provides the counterpoint to this. The university’s Vision 2028 strategy is far more than a visual lift: it’s a comprehensive reshaping of the institution as a whole. As pro-vice chancellor Paul Marshall explains in a refreshingly frank video, “We literally ripped up every single degree programme we have and we rewrote that curriculum.”

For UEL, that has meant reshaping their relationship with industry and dedicating themselves to equipping students for the fifth industrial revolution: “turning a failing institution into a thriving one, and reimagining the role of higher education”. When the soul-searching is this profound and honest, it’s difficult to be quite so critical of a colour scheme.

“What I have found strange throughout this process is the contrast between the communication, which has always been friendly and approachable, and the cold intimidating bureaucratic side of the applications.”

An applicant for postgraduate studies in 2023

The power of invitation

When it comes to convincing messaging, Max believes that the one thing universities can’t do is “break away from their fundamental strengths”. The university that stood out to him was the University of Chicago, “They leaned into their strength — this theme of academic exploration and boundless interdisciplinary opportunities — making them seem genuinely keen on having people who appreciate that around. They wedded that value and that message together very well.” When you’re building a community, there’s tremendous power in enthusiasm and an invitation to join in.

This authenticity needs to be present in visionary videos and website homepages. But the humbler comms are also important, like those deadline reminder emails. In these more mundane areas, universities sometimes fail to implement communication best practice. A straw poll of The Times Education Supplement’s top ten universities shows that, while all have detailed publicly-available guidelines on how their logo should be used, only three offer guidance on tone of voice and half fail to mention writing altogether.

No wonder universities are struggling to sound consistent — and applicants notice. Max often found a jarring disconnect in messaging, “What I have found strange throughout this process is the contrast between the communication, which has always been friendly and approachable, and the cold intimidating bureaucratic side of the applications — the constant warnings about approaching deadlines and your impending doom… Stanford made it sound like any misstep and don’t even come close to Stanford ever again. [The process is] already intimidating and these things can be handled a little better.”

Define and declare your purpose

Universities are particular and peculiar examples of places: simultaneously ambitious and insular, cutting-edge and hidebound. But it’s at their peril that they dismiss brand as a preoccupation of the corporate world. No place can escape the universal truth that the stories we tell about them need to be remade all the time, for new people and for new times.

The failed university rebrands of the past make for an intimidating line up. But the answer is not to lock your logo with care in a glass cabinet, alongside artefacts of college founders. Universities have a brand whether they like it or not; the choice to make is how proactively to shape it. “Brand”, after all, is nothing more or less than what people think and feel about your organisation. Applicants are listening to how you talk to them — and, on an increasingly global stage for education, the world is too.

Instead, watchwords should be authenticity, transparency and consistency. A great rebrand calls for communication that goes both ways: a solid grounding in research and consultation is essential for understanding university communities as they are today. But it doesn’t end there, and that’s where so many rebrands, corporate and academic alike, have faltered. Your community also needs to understand why you have rebranded. Courageous examples like UEL show the way: great brand identities are the hallmark of mature and confident organisations that have clearly defined and declared their purpose in the world.

*It’s worth distinguishing here between brand and brand identity. “Brand” describes what people think about an organisation and how they feel about it; organisations can influence their brand but they can never fully control it. “Brand identity”, on the other hand, refers to the visual and verbal assets that an organisation creates to represent itself, such as logo, brand colours and tone of voice guidelines. So it’s changes to these latter assets that we’re referring to when we talk about a rebrand.

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