Minimising the student backlash - getting your university rebrand right

IE Brand has been working with a leading UK university on a major piece of rebranding work. A number of recent uni rebrands have elicited a critical backlash from students and alumni, which got us talking about the ones that “went wrong”, and the lessons to be learned.

Example  Loughborough University and Lancaster University 

When Loughborough University announced a change to its logo – from an already modern take on the traditional crest to something even further from a heritage brand – it attracted considerable criticism. Not only did Loughborough halt the rebrand, they took the interesting step to ultimately adopt a more traditional-looking, crest-based logo that looks more at home next to its Russell Group competitors.

Lancaster University also recently adopted a more traditional, crest-based design in place of its previous modern incarnation – but they managed to get it right first time. I saw it for myself on a visit to the University with my daughter, at a point in time when only some parts of the university had adopted the new brand. The difference was striking. It really felt at times like we were walking from an old ‘Poly’ into a traditional red-brick university.

Lesson one  Do your homework

The initial stages of a branding project are vital. Whether as a respected research institute you do it yourself or bring in an agency partner, it’s crucial to explore what your brand really stands for – in the memories of your alumni, in the minds of potential and actual students, academics and commercial partners today – and what these vital stakeholders would like it to stand for in the future. Modernisation for its own sake isn’t enough – you need to explore what really makes your organisation tick. Where are its roots, its essence and are there any high equity non-negotiables that should be retained at all costs?

Ask questions:

  • Why do your biggest advocates feel as passionately as they do about your institution?
  • What did your alumni love most about their university experience?
  • What are your prospective students looking for?

Use this insight to create a brief and establish success criteria for everything that comes next. Design is subjective, but if you can objectively demonstrate that it delivers on the success measures set out at the start, at least you can defend your decisions.

Example  King’s College London

King’s College London announced its plans in December 2014 to drop the word ‘College’ and be known simply as King’s London. They described it as “a very modest repositioning” to address confusion with FE colleges and the academic colleges of Oxbridge. While that’s a perfectly good reason, the move was criticised by students and alumni as arrogant for assuming no noun was needed at all.

The rename prompted a groundswell of negative opinion, and a petition to block the plans gathered 6,000 signatures in just 24 hours. Claims that the university had consulted student groups as part of the research process were called into question. Eventually, the university backtracked over its decision and called a halt on the rebrand. At an “obscene” £300,000 estimated cost, this was an expensive mistake to have made.

“We have consulted many people over the last three years but there are clearly many more voices seeking to be heard and we are listening.” King’s College London statement

Lesson two – Involve your audiences (and make it known)

Any rebrand must be considered carefully, ensuring that key stakeholders are engaged in the consultation process. This is particularly crucial for a university; the engagement of students, alumni, academics, professional services and commercial partners is essential. Without due care these valuable allies can become vociferous detractors.

As this case shows, simply engaging with your core audiences isn’t enough – you really need to communicate that you’ve done so too. After the fact, it may be harder to convince people that student views were taken into account.

Example  University of Warwick

Not all rebrands are as drastic as a name change, but a change of visual identity can prove equally emotive. Warwick was highly criticised for its radical rebrand, eliciting a student petition with over 5,000 signatures. Despite the backlash, Warwick held its mettle and went ahead with its rebrand plans, and an FAQ web page describes the rebranding process they went through in detail. However, the University was forced to “acknowledge that some of the communications channels that we used… did not reach all students effectively.”

Lesson three  Be confident but prepared

Design is always highly subjective and emotive. We advise our clients that liking the design is less important than objectively demonstrating that it delivers on the success measures that we agreed at the onset (see Lesson One). We're looking for effectiveness, not popularity.

So when you launch your new brand, do so with conviction. Accept that not everyone will like the end result and prepare for criticism. Plan how you’ll respond and have counter arguments at the ready to explain why the solution you’ve chosen is ultimately the best for your organisation’s future. The dust will eventually settle. As long as you’ve done all the ground work right, a u-turn should never be necessary. 

“So,” I hear you ask, “is everyone going to love IE Brand’s next rebrand?”
I wish!

Ultimately, you can’t stop people from reacting to a new visual identity, however well thought through – and the relative ease of sharing those reactions through online petitions and social media can quickly amplify even the smallest criticism. So, it’s pretty safe to say that there will be some detractors. And do you really want a new identity that is so middle-of-the-road that nobody takes against it at first?

However, by including as many stakeholders as possible in the process of shaping the solution, we hope to have minimised any possible backlash when the rebrand is unveiled. In the end, you just have to hope that detractors will eventually learn to love it as much as the client does.

[Note: IE's rebrand for Cranfield University went live in July 2016 and was very well received. The new brand architecture we created has been shortlisted for a trans-European Transform Award.]