A Future Without Limits – Disruptive Marketing and the USF Rebrand Story

Creating a dynamic change in a brand can be a journey hard-won, especially in higher education where collaboration is key. Alumni are passionate and are deeply attached to their school’s traditional colors, mascots, and logos. Students, faculty, and staff have their own beliefs and pulling it all together can be a challenge. USF’s Chief Marketing Officer, Joe Hice, had navigated these waters before at the University of Florida where he helped create the Gator Nation campaign.

As the keynote speaker for the AMA Tampa Bay luncheon on Sept. 19, Hice shared the USF rebrand story  that started with “Be Bold – Be Bullish” and evolved into the introduction of the “New Bull” logo and the theme, “A Future Without Limits.”  A social media firestorm and student petition followed the “New Bull” and a change was made; the adoption of the “Iconic Bull U” Athletics logo was embraced by the whole university system.

Before the Rebrand 

Although USF is experiencing an amazing growth trajectory, high brand recognition did not come with this progress.  In June 2018, USF achieved Preeminence, the highest designation that a research university can earn from the State of Florida. In addition, the reunification with USF’s two branch campuses in St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee was forecasted to be completed by July 2020.

At the same time as these significant milestones, USF’s U.S. News & World Report reputation score was not keeping pace and had not shifted for many years. USF had low brand awareness in Florida and nationally, due to a lack of logo consistency and marketing.  Hice showed the variety of different USF logos, including the most commonly used “block USF” logo, in his presentation to illustrate this point.

Disruptive Marketing

To create a shift in the higher education marketplace, “Change had to be dramatic,” Hice stated. USF competes in a cluttered marketing space against 5,300 colleges and universities in the U.S.  Hice shared that there were several ways to cause disruption.

Here are a few brand components to consider changing:

  • Name
  • Tagline
  • Logo – USF’s choice
  • Wordmark

To make a dramatic change, Hice first had to gauge the openness of the USF community. Hice had 15 small group meetings with student leadership, faculty, staff, the alumni association board, and USF executive leadership.  Next, he developed a brand council, held a system-wide brand summit, and had three focus groups with prospective, current, and postgraduate USF students.

At the brand summit, a survey was conducted of internal stakeholders.  On the question, Where do you hope the new brand will land on a scale of (1) conservative to bold (5)?  The answer was a 4. There were also research results supporting the “New Bull” logo. When measured against two other logos in consideration, the “New Bull” generated 15% more positive comments than the others.

With the USF community ready to make a bold change and after receiving positive feedback on the “New Bull” logo, Hice moved forward with the USF’s rebrand rollout.

The Response to the “New Bull” Logo and Brand Campaign

On Sept. 5, 2018, former USF President, Judy Genshaft introduced the new logo and theme at her fall welcome address to students. Response to the campaign was not immediate, it heated up around Homecoming, the week of Oct. 15-21. USF alumni and students went to their social media channel of choice to voice their views.  Their feedback shared the following:

  • Don’t like colors
  • Don’t like slogan – “Ambition Over Tradition”
  • Looks too much like Merrill Lynch
  • Bring back the old logo

USF’s social media impressions and users more than doubled illustrating that controversy or disruption does drive awareness and engagement on social media. 

60 days before and after the new logo introduction after homecoming:

  • 397.3 million to 834.1 million impressions
  • 144,557 mentions to 292,853 mentions
  • 69,400 users to 162,900 users

In addition, USF students created a petition, which had approximately 5,000 supporters against the rebrand. In response to both the petition and social media reaction, USF Communications and Marketing revised the brand value, changing it from “Ambition Over Tradition” to “Unlimited Potential” and replacing the “New Bull” logo with the Athletic Association’s “Iconic Bull U” logo. In the announcement to the USF community, it stated “We’ve listened. We’ve learned.”

The “Iconic Bull U” Reemerges

The “Iconic Bull U”, which had always been a USF Athletics logo and is widely integrated into the USF campus, now serves as an academic logo as well.  The announcement of the “Iconic Bull U” spiked social media for about three days, Hice said, and then social media metrics returned to normal, just in time for the arrival of the new USF President, Dr. Steven Currall. 

“If I could do it all over again, I would take more time to gain a broader gauge of response from students and alumni to the new brand. We value the views of our alumni and students. Their support is critical to the success of USF,” Hice said.  He still believes in disruptive marketing and continues to use this strategy by selecting atypical media vehicles for USF’s marketing campaign.

Hice said he looks forward to the tremendous growth of USF on the horizon, as an economic powerhouse and a leader in research and innovation for Tampa Bay and the state of Florida. Recently breaking into the top 50 for U.S. News & World Report college rankings, USF is ranked #44 and is the fastest rising university in the U.S.

Written By: Kathleen Rogers, USF Health, Digital Communications

Edited By: Mike Stephenson, John Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, Editorial Manager