Mark Wemple. Elliott Bedinghaus, vice president of creative at SPARK; Thom Vanderklipp, associate vice president of marketing for USF; and Dulani Porter, SPARK’s executive vice president.

University takes change by the horns

Can a regional institution successfully update and consolidate its brand? A college is about to try.
By: 
Jul. 20, 2018

Come September, the University of South Florida will sport some new looks.

The Tampa institution, along with its St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee campuses, has been on a roll of late, achieving “pre-eminent” status from the Florida Board of Governors — an honor that comes with $6.15 million in additional funding from the state — and securing a 10-year, multimillion-dollar naming-rights deal that will see the Sun Dome athletics arena become the Yuengling Center. Full terms of the dome agreement were not publicly disclosed, but USF Associate Athletic Director Brian Siegrist says the contract will generate annual revenue in the high six-figure range.

“You don't completely change everything overnight and alienate your alumni base that identifies with you.” Thom Vanderklipp, USF’s associate vice president for marketing

In addition to pushing for pre-eminent status — joining the University of Florida and Florida State University — longtime USF System President Judy Genshaft has made unification of the three campuses and improved rankings the latest priorities of her administration. On unification, the school is following the Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act of 2018, which requires the three campuses to consolidate accreditations under one umbrella. The campus will keep the names and separate campus advisory boards, according to the law. 

But while the law, a somewhat contentious bill in the Florida Legislature signed by Gov. Rick Scott in March, gives the school until July 1, 2020 to complete the unification process, Genshaft and her leadership team been busy for months on the preparation side —including a major rebranding effort. 

Thom Vanderklipp, USF’s associate vice president for marketing, says the idea for a brand makeover surfaced about a year ago. With three campuses, myriad academic departments and dozens of athletic teams, USF officials felt the university’s brand had become diluted, with hundreds of different marks, slogans, logos, taglines and other brand paraphernalia floating around.

USF, Vanderklipp says, needed help to “wrangle all of that mixed messaging that's out there and all of that brand fragmentation.” The goal, he adds, was to “coalesce all of that into one master brand that works at multiple levels for the different colleges, for the different campuses.”

SPARK, a Tampa branding and advertising firm, was enlisted to provide that help, beating out bids from more than a dozen other agencies. Led by Dulani Porter, the executive vice president and a USF alumna, SPARK, says Vanderklipp, was chosen because of its strategic approach to branding, problem-solving abilities and solid track record. The agency made headlines recently when its campaign for Visit Florida helped turn around a downward trend in tourism from Canada.

The USF rebrand will not include a change to the university's iconic bull mascot. Courtesy photo.

But that was a single campaign with a laser-like focus on specific results. It’s not every day that a massive institution like USF — with its 50,000 students and 15,000 faculty members — embarks on a brand makeover.

“I don't know if it's necessarily a rebrand as much as it is a brand repositioning,” says Vanderklipp, who managed a brand unification effort for Adventist Health System prior to joining USF, when he worked at Tampa advertising agency 22squared. “It's not just a campaign slogan, it's not just a tagline, but it is truly a brand platform that will be sustainable … and communicates USF for what it is today, which is a young university that is on the rise, that is innovative and that is very much on par with the other two big [Florida] universities on the global stage.”

Young is a big part of USF’s identity — it even hosted a young universities summit in early June that attracted representatives from similar institutions all over the world — but, being founded in 1956, it's old enough to have seen multiple generations of families matriculate.

USF System President Judy Genshaft will unveil the university's new branding in September. Courtesy photo.

“There’s a history there for them and there is a legacy, so we want to be respectful. We want to be good brand stewards,” Vanderklipp says. “You don't completely change everything overnight and alienate your alumni base that identifies with you."

Vanderklipp and SPARK, however, will avoid alumni horns by not messing with the bull, so to speak. “The bull, as a spirit mark for the university, is not going away,” he says, though there could be some tweaking of the university’s primary horned “U” logo. 

Vanderklipp emphasizes that the repositioning effort is about amplifying and encapsulating the messages that are already communicated by the USF brand, as opposed to creating something out of nothing; hence, the extensive research with alumni, students, athletes, faculty, donors and other stakeholders.

“If it doesn’t ring true,” he says, “it’s a big miss.”