Branding in Higher Ed: The Battle of Waterloo

Six months ago, the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada began transitioning over to a new branding identity. Marketing surveys had shown that the University of Waterloo was perceived as a “regional” university despite having highly ranked Engineering, Computer Science, and Mathematics departments. The school needed to market their campus as a cutting-edge and competitive learning institution. The University of Waterloo’s new logo was released on campus with minimal publicity a little over six months ago.

Facebook in Higher Education: University of Waterloo logos

Facebook in Higher Education: University of Waterloo logos

(Image from Brand New)

The backlash was immediate and enormous. Within a day, students at University of Waterloo formed a Facebook group opposing the new logo on the grounds that a.) the logo itself was unprofessional and failed to represent the school as a serious learning institution and b.) it was designed in-house with no transparency and no student feedback in the design process. By the end of the week, the group had 5,000 fans and had generated a lot of bad press for the University of Waterloo.

Facebook in Higher Education: Waterloo logo pear

Facebook in Higher Education: Waterloo logo pear

Currently, the Facebook group opposing University of Waterloo’s rebranding has 8,613 members- roughly 30% of the student body. The school started a Facebook group of its own, University of Waterloo Marketing Logo Feedback, but it was too little too late. A quick glance at the University of Waterloo’s website and branding guidelines confirms that the backlash from the student body has effectively halted any attempts at moving forward with the new logo.

Whether or not the new logo was successful aesthetically is almost irrelevant at this point. (For the record, I like it, but I don’t love it.) The rationale behind the rebranding effort was sound. Schools do need current, professional branding to establish themselves as a world-class school in a competitive marketplace. But a new logo and color palette aren’t enough to completely change brand perception (students don’t choose a school on the strength of its logo alone!). Brand perception is shaped by a school’s marketing department, by the strength of their academic offerings and- perhaps most importantly- by the endorsement of its students and alumni.

That endorsement is why it’s so important to get feedback when designing for a community with strong brand loyalty. Students and faculty interact with a school’s brand every day and carry it with them into the rest of the world when they graduate. It is one of the most important brands in their lives. The community around a school can endorse and strengthen your school’s brand, or they can destroy your school’s brand if they feel it doesn’t represent them.

Launching a new brand without any student or alumni feedback whatsoever is treating the school’s community badly. True, it can be hard to get a community with strong brand loyalty to accept a new direction, but if students and alumni are willing to endorse the finished product, the extra time and money spent getting are more than worth it.

Imagine if the school had the foresight to poll the student body or started a forum on Facebook to get constructive feedback on the new logo before they spent money and resources on a design students opposed. The University of Waterloo had an opportunity to engage its students in the future of the school, and by keeping their students in the dark about the design process, they courted controversy instead.

This story also illustrates the power of Facebook on campuses. I’m sure not all 8,631 members of the anti-rebranding Facebook group are in the student body, but even so- are there any student publications with the ability to reach that many people and keep them engaged in the ongoing saga of a rebrand? Before Facebook, how would you organize and communicate with a group of this magnitude? Can you even imagine 30% of a school organizing on a different social networking site?

It will be very interesting to see how the University of Waterloo reconciles the differing opinions. At this point, it’s highly unlikely that everyone involved with be satisfied with the final outcome, but hopefully the University of Waterloo can come up with an aesthetically progressive brand identity that is also progressive in the level of transparency and student involvement in its design process.

Facebook in Higher Education: Michigan State University's New Logo Rejected By Students

Facebook in Higher Education: Michigan State University's New Logo Rejected By Students

As a side note, it looks like the Michigan State University is about to unveil an extensive rebrand of their athletic identity. An attempt to tweak the existing Spartans logo has already been forcefully rejected.