By Gregory B. Hladky
12:35 PM EDT, April 16, 2013
So you don’t get confused, what with all the high-powered lobbying and marketing going on right now, University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst wants you to know her school isn’t just some corporate promotional product.
“We’re not breakfast cereal, and we’re not a detergent,” Herbst said in a slightly defensive manner while announcing a new “visual identity program” for changing the way people think about and talk about Connecticut’s top state university.
You see, the University of Connecticut no longer wants to be recognized as the stodgy old University of Connecticut. Nor does it want to be known by its long-standing, humdrum acronym, “UConn.”
The old logo image of the school’s mascot, Jonathan the Husky, a happy-go-lucky, tongue-hanging-out sort of pup that’s been used since the 1980s, is also out.
From now on, it’s all “UCONN” in big block letters and a somewhat menacing, more wolf-like Husky that will be staring down the university’s opponents.
“We need to broadcast who we are or we will waste away, as other very sophisticated and successful universities dominate public discourse and the search for knowledge,” Herbst explained in her “State of the University” address earlier this month.
Of course, this is coming out at the same time that Herbst and this state’s UConn (oops, I meant UCONN) Mafia are lobbying hard for another $2 billion in taxpayer money for a massive expansion program.
It’s a request that’s raised eyebrows, coming as it does on top of the $2.3 billion — plus another $1 billion in interest on the bonding — the state allocated in the past decade or so for the UConn 2000 and UConn 21st Century expansion/rehab programs.
Some critics, like state House Republican Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. (who actually is a UConn grad), professed astonishment that the school could be asking for that kind of dough at a time when the state is in deep fiscal doo doo.
Herbst and her allies are probably thanking the NCAA’s March Madness gods for the very timely championship trophy brought home by the UConn (damnit, I mean UCONN) women’s basketball team.
So it’s a good thing all this changing of UConn to UCONN and the transformation of the friendly Jonathan to the not-so-friendly Jonathan isn’t going to cost taxpayers a dime, according to university officials.
Well, maybe it won’t cost anything, and maybe it will.
“The new design of the UConn word mark [the new block-letter “UCONN”] was created in-house by University Communications as part of its regular annual budget,” explains spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz, “with no additional money allocated to the update.”
And the redesign for the Jonathan logo was accomplished entirely by Nike as part of the 10-year, $46 million contract it signed with the university’s athletic department back in 2008.
For colleges and universities that are now part of the Nike marketing empire, the sports apparel conglomerate routinely “helps schools reshape their looks,” says Kyle Muncy. He’s the assistant director for trademark licensing and branding for UConn’s athletic programs, a title that says a lot about how big a business big-time college athletics have become.
“We revamp our uniforms virtually every year,” says Muncy.
Except that marketing experts point out that no sort of change like this comes without some sort of extra cost.
Replacing “University of Connecticut” with “UCONN” on signs at all campuses, on stationery, business cards, brochures, etc., etc., etc., won’t be cheap.
“It’s not insignificant at all,” says Elizabeth Scarborough, CEO of SimpsonScarborough, a market research firm based in Alexandria, Va., that works exclusively to help colleges and universities with their brand strategies.
The idea of “rebranding” is hot right now for lots of institutions of higher education, from the University of California to Long Island University. In 2011, LIU committed itself to a multiyear, $9.5-million rebranding campaign.
But Scarborough says what UConn is doing isn’t a total rebranding, where a school “is trying to change what it stands for.”
“UConn isn’t changing its brand, it’s just changing its visual identity,” explains Scarborough, who doesn’t count Connecticut’s biggest school among her clients. She also believes it’s “beyond time they made the change” to “capture this brand.”
One creative director for a Connecticut-based marketing firm, who didn’t want to be identified because his company might be looking to get some UConn-related work, agrees with Scarborough.
“It’s going to cost,” he says, theorizing that the changes in signage could be the biggest expense. “You can pay up front, or you can pay over time.”
Reitz says the plan is to make those changes on a gradual basis, using a temporary cover with UCONN on it for most signs until it’s time for a regular repainting or upgrade. As for stationery and all the rest, Reitz says school officials will be expected to use up existing materials and, when new stuff is needed, it will be ordered with the new big UCONN word mark.
And not all of those signs will need replacement, since the school will still be using its traditional oak-leaf emblem and its official seal, both of which appear on lots of doors and signs.
The new look has already been installed on some buses and police cars, and those blocky letters have been used on the uniforms of various athletic teams for a while.
As for the new-look Jonathan logo, that may not be exactly free either.
“Nike’s not doing it out of the goodness of its heart,” points out Scarborough. She says she’s not sure how the financial arrangements are worked out, but that, “It has to be money for Nike.”
“The more popular UConn athletics get, the better it is for Nike,” she says, which after all makes some nice coin off all of that University of Connecticut-related sports apparel.
And a new look and logo probably means lots of fans will want to buy the new stuff, which isn’t likely to hurt Nike’s bottom sales line.
Muncy says the school’s co-op and other stores that have been selling old UConn stuff, “have known for months and months” that the look was going to be changed. So they’ve been trying to sell down their inventories and cut back on new orders until the revamped products are ready for shipment.
Somebody may still be taking some financial hits for that soon-to-be-out-of-date merchandise, points out the publicity-shy Connecticut marketing dude. “There’s going to be a loss,” he says, and the question is whose. “They [Nike] sell a lot of product across the country.” But that apparently won’t be the university’s problem.
What may trouble Herbst and her colleagues to some degree is the fan reaction to the fierce new Jonathan.
Initial comments on the UConn website weren’t exactly favorable.
“I don’t like it. I don’t think anybody likes it. Nobody likes it,” wrote Brian Hewitt.
“Get rid of it... nothing was wrong with the first one,” was the opinion of Tracy Mosher.
Bob Gigliotti’s comment was, “It’s horrible. Sold out to Nike.”
On the other hand, UConn’s strategists probably aren’t all that worried about the fans. They have bigger issues on their minds.
Herbst pointed out in her address that lots of important schools are now known by something other than their full formal titles. There’s MIT, and UCLA, and Pitt and Penn.
UConn may not be a laundry soap or cornflakes brand, as Herbst noted, but she insisted that “We still need to communicate what we do, why we do it, how we do it, and that we do it well.”
How simply changing the school’s “word mark” and the Husky logo is going to accomplish that isn’t exactly clear. According to Reitz, there’s no university budget “at this time for promotional activities.”
Maybe they could find a little promotional cash out of that extra $2 billion, if they get it.
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