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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 28, 2018 10 months ago

Bullish behavior: University's new look comes with vigorous debate

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A university's rollout of its new logo produced a bumpy ride. While lessons have been learned, officials view the makeover as a net positive.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

It’s been a year of change — you could even call it upheaval — at the University of South Florida.

There was cause for celebration when Tampa-based USF was granted Preeminent State Research University status, and the $6.15 million in additional funding that comes with it, by the Florida Board of Governors. USF joins University of Florida and Florida State University as the only state universities to achieve “preeminence.”

Then, in September, longtime USF System President Judy Genshaft announced her retirement, effective July, ending her nearly two-decade run at the helm of the Tampa-based institution. USF also has St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses.

“It’s not at all unexpected to get this kind of reaction when you change something.” Thom Vanderklipp, associate vice president of marketing for USF

But nothing seemed to generate headlines like the introduction of a new academic logo for the university. Featuring a new font, lime-green color and bull image that drew unfavorable comparisons to the Merrill Lynch logo, the mark, developed with the help of Tampa marketing agency Spark, came in for criticism almost from the get-go. It even spurred a change.org petition that drew nearly 7,500 signatures through early December. 

School officials didn't, um, back down from the bull. 

“We weren’t trying to be conservative,” says Thom VanderKlipp, USF’s assistant vice president of marketing. “We were trying to be bold, forward-leading and modern because that’s the brand we want people to understand about USF. We’re trying to differentiate [the university’s brand], and that is always going to ruffle some feathers.”

Or anger a few bulls, as it were. Students, alumni and others with close ties to the university questioned the design, particularly the lime-green hue, which had not been part of previous USF color schemes. External voices, such as graphic design experts, praised the move.

“We’re not surprised by the mixed reaction,” VanderKlipp adds. “We’re glad people are passionate and talking about USF. It’s not at all unexpected to get this kind of reaction when you change something.”

The new USF academic logo was unveiled in early September. Courtesy photo.

USF hasn’t shied away from deploying the logo. It’s being widely used on letterhead, business cards, T-shirts and signage. College-specific versions are under development and scheduled to arrive in January, the university says in a release. 

University officials such as VanderKlipp point out the new mark is not intended to replace the more well known USF athletics logo, referred to as the “Bull U.” In retrospect, that could’ve been communicated more clearly, VanderKlipp says.

“The way it was introduced, there was a lot of confusion,” he says. “This is replacing the block USF logo, and once [the critics] realized that that’s what we’re talking about, they kind of backed off.”

The logo rollout — and subsequent reaction — drove home some important business lessons for VanderKlipp and the team that worked on the project. No. 1: Timing is everything.

“The timing, around the time of [Genshaft’s] fall address, it wasn’t ideal,” VanderKlipp says. “We were finalizing a lot of it over the summer, when there weren’t as many students around and so there just wasn’t that opportunity to have on-campus focus groups.”

The second lesson: Words matter. While the new logo was being rolled out at the beginning of the fall semester, USF also field-tested a few phrases it was considering using in its 2019 marketing campaign, which will be unveiled in February. One of the phrases associated with USF’s core beliefs, “Ambition Over Tradition,” drew the ire of alumni, though VanderKlipp says it was never under consideration as an official tagline.

“Without having the campaign finalized, we just kind of glommed onto that line,” he explains. “It was mostly alumni who were offended by that, and we get it. We understand that, and we shouldn’t have used it.”

On the bright side, the brand makeover has lit up social media and drawn attention to USF “on a global scale,” says VanderKlipp. The new look also has proven popular with incoming and prospective students, as well as a key demographic: parents of those students. As part of the rollout process, VanderKlipp says USF surveyed 1,000 people and saw a 14% lift in the number of them who would consider attending the university after they were exposed to the new logo.

The fresh, more cohesive image will also help USF in the coming year as it seeks to accomplish two monumental tasks: unify its three campuses via standardized academic accreditation and find a successor to Genshaft.

“People will start to hear the voice [of USF] expressed, and our communication will align with it,” says VanderKlipp. “I think you’ll see more swagger.”

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