Winders: Avoiding the pitfalls of rebranding

I’ll admit as a newspaper reporter I salivated at the thought of covering the oftentimes comical rebranding processes cities, businesses, civic organizations and, yes, even universities would go through. It always made for fun questions for – and awkward answers from – those who deemed the process necessary.

I was reminded of those days this summer as City of London officials mulled an update to the city’s decade-old tree logo.

Seriously, London faces major issues – unemployment, unchecked urban sprawl, pitiful traffic engineering, sinking infrastructure, even an identity crisis on a Sybil-like scale. Explain to me, which one does a fresh new tree logo solve?

Heck, I remain perplexed about our allegiance to a tree-based logo anyway, given so much has been ceded to commercial and residential developers. (Perhaps a bulldozer logo would be more appropriate for the once-forested city.)

Let me save you some time and tell you how this ends as I have written the story countless times in other locales. In six months, London rolls out a new logo, a handful of new fonts for letterhead, finds itself several hundred thousand dollars poorer and still stuck with the same old problems.

That’s the danger of the rebranding processes: Large organizations, conservative by nature, must be willing to change something that matters. They must dig deeply and honestly into their DNA – what they do, how and why they do it – and stand ready to blow it up if the research points them in that direction.

And that is easier said, or easier redesigned, than actually done.

Like London, Western finds itself at a time of self-reflection.

Many returned to campus this fall, greeted for the first time in any real measure, by Western’s institution-wide rebranding process. For the last year, most of the effort has been spent engaging senior leaders on the university’s future direction and mission, and how to communicate that at a high level. Not a small job.

Next steps include engaging the entire university community on how to portray Western and its mission visually. In coming days, many of my colleagues will be hitting you up for your thoughts – be it in forums, surveys or simply stopping you on campus – on different aspects of the rebranding.

We have seen in the early phases a willingness to explore uncomfortable facts about the institution. We have seen questions being asked about every corner of what we do. Western has put a lot on the table for this process.

This isn’t just a logo tweak.

Don’t underestimate what it takes to open up like that. It’s an uncomfortable thing for an institution to do. It’s far easier to do nothing, or a little something, and hope things work out on their own.

But in an ever-competitive environment, where every researcher, every student, every funding dollar is fought for, we need to be brave and truthful about ourselves to find that edge.

It’s a worthwhile and necessary goal for this university. But can Western avoid the pitfalls so many fall into, and translate a new look and feel into a true new identity? That’s hard to answer, and more difficult to guarantee.

So much of that depends on us, the community members, and our willingness to buy in and move forward. Processes like these can seem so far removed from those of us on the ground in an institution this large. But the end result will impact every job on this campus.

That’s why it is important to get involved in the process. The university needs our honesty, and willingness to dig deep into our collective organizational DNA. We all must be willing to change if the research points in that direction. And I think we are.

But change is never easy. So participate, speak up and truly revel in being part of an exciting time at the university.