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A new look (and more) for UofSC

Brand refresh aims to focus university identity, enhance national reputation

On Jan. 8, communicators from throughout campus gathered at Hootie Johnson Hall in the Darla Moore School of Business to see a long-awaited refresh of the university’s brand platform.

When you hear the phrase “brand platform,” you might be tempted to substitute the word “logo” in your mind. But a brand encompasses far more than a logo. For students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors and more, a focused brand platform helps everyone understand just what it is about the University of South Carolina that makes it special and gives the tools to talk about it in a consistent voice.

Though new to campus and the general public, the brand refresh has been in the works for about two years and has involved university leadership every step of the way. @UofSC Today sat down with J.C. Huggins, director of brand strategy in the Office of Communications and Public Affairs, for some background on the brand refresh — and updates on what faculty and staff can expect in the coming weeks and months.

The university has made some changes recently in terms of its look. Can you explain what has changed and what hasn’t?

The visual identity is just part of a much larger brand refresh. It had been a little over eight years since we had taken a look at the brand platform and asked ourselves if this needed to be updated. We did some pretty extensive research — both qualitative and quantitative, with just over 8,000 people, including leadership, faculty, students, prospective students, etc. — and it was clear that we needed to refresh some things. What has been seen so far is just one small part of that, part of the visual identity system that will be used on social media and on other communications applications where space is limited. People will start to see the new platform over the course of the next semester as we put it into production.

We initially put out the UofSC on social media, and there was a little bit of confusion out there about what that was. Can you walk through the different visual elements — what’s new, what has been refreshed and what has stayed the same?

The athletics marks will not be altered as part of this — they will remain the same. We revised the tree and gates logo; it is the second time that logo has been revised since it was introduced in 1996. It was originally introduced when the web was in its early days and prior to the advent of social media. So digital applications weren’t really a consideration in its design. As a result, it didn’t really hold up well in smaller formats, and especially in digital formats like avatars. So, we simplified that and made it a little cleaner.

It’s still a pretty complex visual mark, so we wanted something that complemented that in small spaces. That’s why we created the UofSC monograms. There is one that is stacked and one that is linear. Those will be used for promotional items, for digital applications, for lapel pins and other areas where space is limited.

Then there is a mark that sort of combines those two things — it pairs the South Carolina wordmark from the tree and gates logo with the monogram to give us a visual element plus “South Carolina.”

Other Southeastern Conference schools refer to us as South Carolina. There are a lot of universities nationally where, when you hear the state name — which is the flagship university's name, as well — you think university first and state second, and that’s kind of the idea here. We are proud of South Carolina, and we really want to take what is already a strong tie between the state and the university — and has been for more than 200 years — and make that a point of emphasis and a point of pride.

I think a lot of attention the monogram got was because it was first out of the gate; it really is just an abbreviation that goes back to that focus on South Carolina.

Part of that was the way it was rolled out. The entire brand platform was presented to stakeholders on campus, everyone from our steering committee to the Board of Trustees to the deans and others, and then to communicators across campus. At some point, you reach critical mass where it crosses from internal to external. In this age of social media, you as the organization behind the branding don’t have control over how it’s shared. For instance, we presented on a screen at the Moore School that is 30 feet high, and we saw in real time that the third slide of the presentation had been photographed and tweeted out. At that point things became external.


We really aren’t trying to create a new brand for the university; what we are trying to do is have the brand reflect who the university is today.

J.C. Huggins, director of brand strategy


Can you talk about some of the research and discovery that went into this?

We did quite a bit of research, both brand perception research — testing some of the concepts that were part of the platform previously — and national identity research.

In the national identity research, we tested things like USC, Carolina and UofSC nationally. Nationally, and that includes South Carolina, the abbreviation “USC” was associated with the University of Southern California 70 percent of the time and with us about 20 percent of the time. “UofSC” was associated with the University of South Carolina 71 percent of the time and with Southern Cal about 20 percent of the time.

The findings were interesting to us. We have used “UofSC” in social media for 10 years, and we have used it around campus for things like TEDxUofSC, a “@UofSC” section on the website since 2013 and the daily email @UofSC Today. But we really haven’t used it in other marketing materials in a big way, so to have that kind of association at those levels is pretty remarkable.

And those themes are reflected in the brand platform and things that the public has not really seen.

That’s right. It’s everything from key messages to the visual identity. It’s the ways that we express who we are.

One way to think of it is as a personification of the university. If you thought about the university as a person, what would that personality be? These are things you will see in the voice and the personality of the things we create in communications, as well as the visual identity.

When most people think of a brand, they think of a logo and a tagline. But really, that is a small part of it. The brand messages focus, as we have for the past several years, on academic and research excellence, the outstanding student experience here at the university, and the fact that the university is both the economic and the social engine for the state, because we educate so many South Carolinians.

The idea is that it is an evolution of the way we have talked about those themes in the past. We are still talking about those same themes, but we are talking about them in a new way where everything fits together in a more holistic sense.

We really aren’t trying to create a new brand for the university; what we are trying to do is have the brand reflect who the university is today.

Overall, what do you hope the brand refresh can do for the university and for its reputation?

I hope it is the foundation for enhancing our national reputation and for a sense of pride. I hope it gives people an idea of how they can best refer to and embody the best of the university, so that our external audiences get a clear and consistent idea of what it is that makes this place great and all the fantastic things that happen here on a daily basis.


A brand is not something that we are defining as much as it is defined by our external audiences — it’s a perception of us that people have in their minds. While we want to shape that, we also have to have brand awareness and understand what that perception is to start with.

J.C. Huggins, director of brand strategy


What’s next for faculty and staff

Faculty and staff who work outside communications might not be used to thinking of the place where they work as a “brand” — it’s a university. Can you explain why it makes sense to have a unified way to talk about ourselves?

The University of South Carolina is a very big, comprehensive place. Someone on the outside might just see us recruiting and educating students. But anybody who works here knows that it is so much broader than that. We produce a lot of communications around all those things that we do for various audiences. And for people on the receiving end of that, who aren’t as close to it as we all are, sometimes that information can be both overwhelming and incompatible.

The brand platform is really a way to give a hierarchy to that kind of information, so that we will make sense to people on the outside as they start to hear it. They will know how to assign meaning to it and they don’t just dismiss it because it’s incongruent with what they are thinking or hearing elsewhere.

A brand is not something that we are defining as much as it is defined by our external audiences — it’s a perception of us that people have in their minds. While we want to shape that, we also have to have brand awareness and understand what that perception is to start with.

It all starts with the research. We have been doing longitudinal brand research since 2011, so we have a historical perspective on perceptions of the brand over time.


We have a well thought of brand on top of growing enrollment and rising student profiles, which is rarified air for the most comprehensive research universities. We didn’t need a rebranding. What we did need was to extend our brand to be as comprehensive, as adaptable and as national as the university itself.

 J.C. Huggins, the university’s director of brand strategy


For those who have just seen a piece of the new brand platform, what would you say in terms of what they will see over time?

The approach we took was that rather than spend a massive amount of money to have everything ready to go and launch everything on Day One, and to change all of our communications like we are flipping a switch, we took the approach of training the trainers.

The branding firm we partnered with, Ologie, came in and trained the Communications and Public Affairs staff on how to use the new brand platform and introduced communicators throughout campus on how to use it. That’s going to be an ongoing process with academic units, with admissions, with development, that sort of brings everybody online over the course of the semester so that they start producing materials in the new brand platform as they get more training from the Communications and Public Affairs staff. So you will start to see things produced by various offices on campus that will reflect the new platform over the course of this semester.

How do you see the refresh playing out throughout campus, in terms of the involvement of colleges, schools, centers and institutes?

The colleges and schools’ communications staffs will get trained in February, and we will have a new brand toolbox on that will have assets and guidelines for people to start producing things. The guidelines are comprehensive to an extent that we have never had before, including things like voice and tone, typography, photography, colors, a new secondary color palette that complements our primary garnet, black and white.

We will also have a custom communications portal where people who might not be designers can go in and construct pieces. Someone in a center who might not have the skill set or the time to go into InDesign will be able to go there and build a piece. They will be able to select the type of piece they want — whether it’s a poster or a brochure — input the copy they want, and it will be styled appropriately with the correct fonts, with photography they can select, and build a piece in a way that is intuitive. Those types of things we are building now: They are not available Day One, but they will come online over the course of the semester.

For people who are working on projects and wondering if and when they should be incorporating new elements, what is your message to them?

For the identity — the logos and the fonts — those are straight substitutions. If you are working on a piece, you have not been trained, but you want it to have the new look, those are pretty easy substitutions. You can work with Communications and Public Affairs to get those assets to use. Understanding the voice and the personality — some of the subtler differences — is going to require training.

The other thing I would say is: If you are up against a deadline, go ahead and produce what you are going to produce. Maybe don’t order the same quantity — order a lesser quantity knowing that it is going to change — but there is not a hard date that says, “Everything needs to change over to the new look by X date.” It’s a matter of, “What are our options?” “How important is it to get this done by tomorrow?” “How much bandwidth do you have to think through some of the things you need to think through to change it to the new platform?”

We have options. We understand that everyone is in this boat together, and everyone is up against their own deadlines. We would really rather have people take a thoughtful approach to the new brand and implement it in a way that isn’t rushed or is not giving them time to be thoughtful and considerate in the way they apply it.

When do you anticipate that faculty and staff will have access to PowerPoint, letterhead and those types of nuts-and-bolts tools?

All those things are being produced now, and we have a prioritized list of what to approach first. The first things that are going to be produced are business cards, letterhead and envelopes that can be ordered through that custom communications portal. Those should be available as early as next week, and they can be ordered by business managers in all units.

This is a new thing — the portal is new, as well as the platform — so, we are getting a feel for how to put things into production, and that is part of what we are taking on now.

For someone who is on campus but has nothing to do with communications, how does this affect them?

Ultimately, branding goes beyond communications into interactions. The hope is that the brand platform stands as a model of how to refer to and to represent the university. Some of the brand personality traits are ‘optimistic,’ ‘committed’ and ‘welcoming.’ Those are the types of things that we should model in our behavior with visitors to campus, whether it is a visiting professor or a visiting speaker or a prospective student. Be optimistic, welcoming.

Again, these are not things that are revolutionary — these are things that people who were surveyed said they feel about us when they come here. But it really should serve as a guidepost for how people think of the university and how we want them to think of the university. It’s us trying to be our best selves.

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