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Ane Du Preez and Ross Thornton-Dibb
Tertiary Institutions and Millennial Appeal: What to do with your logo

Tertiary education is becoming increasingly important to a new generation of South Africans. These Millennials are looking for quality education at an affordable price, and these first-time ‘consumers’ often rely on visual cues to navigate the category.

Universities have become aware of the fact that like any other brand, they need to be seen as relevant and desirable to their target market. To keep up with changing consumer demands and expectations, many of them are looking to refresh and update their visual triggers to align better with the way Millennials communicate and absorb messaging.

But in a category so reliant on heritage, how can universities successfully modernise?

The Visual Expectations of Millennials

Millennials have a different set of visual triggers to the generations before them. There are four trends, in particular, which are important in the way young consumers absorb and consume information:

  1. Visual simplification. The fast-paced and overloaded lifestyle of Millennials has given rise to the 'App aesthetic.' Consumers have learnt to relate to brands through bold, simple visual cues.Woolworths
  2. Abbreviations. These new consumers have grown up in an age where technology is as much a part of who they are, as any of their limbs. They have learnt to communicate in abbreviations and acronymsReebok
  3. Getting the best for less.The youth have become aware of brands, their equity and brand promise from a very early age, and have been trained to question the value of their investment across categories. They want to get, and be seen to get, the best of what's on offer.
  4. AbsolutVodkaLocal Love.The 'born-frees' have grown up in an era where heritage and the country's past are openly discussed. They are much more sensitive to the brands that fit with their belief system than the generations before them were.LoveJozi


It would be safe to say that updating an existing brand identity to appeal to the youth market has become an exercise in brutal simplification. Brands are stripping away any excess and are taking on the type of crisp, paired-down aesthetic that feels right at home on a 'smart' device - or amongst "LOLs", "WTFs" and "BRBs".

When the market is demanding Simplification, Abbreviation, Superiority and Relevance from the brands they identify with, how can a university brand evolve its identity to connect with the market while still satisfying the demands of its traditional category?

The Tertiary Education Sector

The tertiary education sector has always had a set of mandatories that brands who want to be taken seriously have to tick. A longstanding and illustrious heritage, the best academic quality and the expectation of great future for students are but a few of these mandatories that make up part of the brand promise. These are communicated visually by elements such as the university's crest and logo.

Decades and centuries of visual tradition have dictated a fairly strict set of rules for being taken seriously.The symbol of distinction for any significant organisation used to be the coat of arms - coming from the family crests of important land owners and royalty, who would lend their crest to organisations they endorsed. A category rule was established, giving us the myriad university identities we see today, made up of a coat of arms/crest and a name in uppercase serif type.

This has made it extremely difficult for any tertiary education institute who wants to be seen to be prestigious to modernise their identity for contemporary consumers.

A few universities have done this well:

New York University

  • Simplified a dated logo
  • Used the common abbreviation to retain equity
  • Maintained visual links with key symbol
  • Elegant and Premium feel


University of Victoria:

  • Retained strong visual links
  • Elegant and artful simplification
  • Intelligent choice of retained element
  • Clean, crisp typography
  • Category appropriate

Victoria University

Other universities are not doing it so well:

Stellenbosch Schools of Public Leadership

Stellenbosch University

  • No equity retained
  • Alien in the category (more comfortable alongside ESPN or an airline)

The lessons we can draw from the tertiary institutions getting it right, include:

  • Listen to the individuals that make up your market  Hear what they think about and want from your brand and then make your identity work towards that. If your market isn't referring to "UV" then you aren't going to make it happen - you are theUniversity of Victoriain their minds and that's not worth messing with.
  • Don't throw the baby out with the bath water Chances are that any brand looking to refresh its identity is well established. So analyse where the equity lies within your existing identity, and leverage it for all its worth - a single torch has more power than an intricate seal, in the case of NYU.
  • Category rules mean something Identify yours and play them to your advantage. Some category rules can be broken with excellent results; others shouldn't be tampered with because you're gambling with the perception of trust.
  • It's all about balance  Any identity update in a well-established category is about striking the right balance between heritage and category rules on the one hand, and relevance to new and changing target markets on the other. Sometimes you need to learn a whole new language to fit in, other times you just need to change your accent.


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