Don't accept imitation in branding! Learn from Northumbria University's mistake...

imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness
— Oscar Wilde

Northumbria University recently had a rebranding exercise completed. Here is their old logo for reference:

Old Northumbria University logo design

Old Northumbria University logo design

Now, don't get me wrong, this wasn't a particularly inspiring logo and so a rebrand may be worth it. Other than the Drab colours, there is nothing particularly special about it. There's a nice nod to the Gateshead Millennium Bridge (Gateshead is part of Northumbria don't forget - whilst the University is based in Newcastle, Northumbria is huge so they could draw inspiration from things further afield than Newcastle) but that's it. The website followed suit with clinical text. So - they decided a rebrand was in order.

Here's what they came up with for a logo:

New Northumbria University Logo design

New Northumbria University Logo design

The logo is indeed White on a Black background. You can reverse it and see the Black logo on a White background, but their overall brand scheme is to go Black background for most things. More than that, they have gone for a bold Black and White look for everything in fact. This makes sense to a degree - the most obvious pastimes in Newcastle are football and rugby, both of which the home teams use Black and White as team strip colours. Black and White, therefore, has become ubiquitous and associated with Newcastle. 

However I believe there is a problem with the logo design they have come up with. Here is another Newcastle based university logo:

Current Newcastle University Logo

Current Newcastle University Logo

OK, so I picked the Black and White version to make more of a statement about the problem (They normally have a Blue and Red version on White), but you can hopefully see the striking resemblance. 

  • Both have Shield/Coat of Arms based Logo marks
  • Both logo marks are in two halves - top and bottom
  • Both have stacked word marks
  • Both have bold sans serif type on top
  • Both have thinner/lighter type on the bottom

The only thing saving the logo from being a 100% copy is the serif type of "University" in the Newcastle University logo. Other than that, what's the difference really?

If you look at the wider brand as a whole, things start to get a little more different. The most obvious difference is tone of voice. Newcastle University has a much more corporate feel to it - the kind of tone you would expect to come from a slightly boring senior executive. The tone rom Northumbria on the other hand if much more energetic. Short punchy text grabs your attention, especially when used with video, and the use of the hashtag starts to become prevalent.

In the Northumbria brand the tone speaks to the student. In the Newcastle brand, the tone speaks to the parents of the student. 

The brand takes the difference further by adopting social media in far more central way. Not only have they explored newer web design (i.e. video backgrounds - something Newcastle University lacks) The first thing you see on their site is the use of the hashtag #takeontomorrow - a call to arms to get momentum behind the students to have a sense of pride in what the university stands for, in how the university wants the students to approach their curriculum. 

But that logo - for all the uniqueness associated with the rest of the brand, it misses the spot in a big way. A logo is the single emblem that people remember about an experience with a brand. When they see a logo, they automatically know what they are getting. As an example (and I don't even have to spell out who I am talking about here for you understand my point), when you see the double golden arches on a Red background - you know exactly what flavour you are going to get when you bite the product.

So for all the efforts put into the brand to make it distinct the problem they face once the hubbub dies down is that the logo they are left with is that of the opposition - the bigger university. How will students be able to feel a sense of pride in their own university when they look like the competition? Talk however you want and push information however you want to remain "different", but the logo is going cause you problems, Northumbria. Not only is it going to be an expensive process to keep your presence unique - pushing the tone of voice, pushing the style, video production etc - but you have to shy away from your own logo to be sure people don't confuse you with your own opposition.

Northumbria students deserve better. Their new logo has already failed them. It could have been great, but for me it misses the mark. I hope the students take on the brand and push it for all it's worth - but I suspect new logos will be pulled out to stand behind, undermining the no doubt vast cost of this work.