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USF works to remake its muddled brand. Right now, ‘it doesn’t really say anything’

TAMPA — Turn in on LeRoy Collins Boulevard, past the gold university seal and the stiff serif letters that announce the University of South Florida, and signs point the way in muddled shades of green. Scattered Bull logos and mismatched block letters dot the campus, adding up to — what?

Online, the sense of USF’s identity is even less coherent. On the school’s homepage, four students chat in the grass. Except for their T-shirts in Bulls green, they could be anywhere in Universityland, U.S.A.

"It doesn’t have a theme," said USF’s chief marketing officer Joe Hice. "It doesn’t really say anything."

That’s why Hice has scrawled a phrase in green marker on his office whiteboard, a phrase he hopes will play a leading role in uniting USF’s fragmented sense of self: BE BOLD. BE BULLISH.

The slogan is the seed of a major rebranding campaign set to launch in the coming months as USF tries to sharpen its brand image, which is lagging behind as the university makes serious academic strides.

"Why don’t people know we’re $500 million-plus in research? Why don’t people know that we have great students?" Hice asks. "Because we haven’t been telling the story."

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By the time he was brought aboard six months ago, bringing experience in corporate and higher education marketing, USF had decided the time was right to rehab its image and attract more students. Leaders commissioned a survey of 1,000 people across the nation, with findings that just rekindled old headaches.

There’s the albatross of USF’s name, for one. Students and parents still think USF must be in Miami or Fort Lauderdale — or even San Francisco. Some write it off immediately.

"Sounds like a party school," one parent said.

Most parents outside of Florida couldn’t say where USF is located. Nearly a third had never heard of it. And when they had, they just talked about its affordability, not its medical school or strong job placement rates.

Meanwhile, faculty wring their hands, frustrated that the momentum of their research is going unseen. Administrators lament the specter of USF’s reputation as a commuter school, once derided as "U Stay Forever," even as residence halls keep sprouting and graduation rates keep climbing. Fundraising is up. Incoming student GPAs are up. Rankings are up.

"It’s about time our reputation is as strong as our objective performance," USF System President Judy Genshaft said in her fall address, her Bull U earrings glinting in the stage lights.

In some ways, USF is an underdog trying to claw its way into the standings of schools — like the Gator Nation — with a 50-year head start. It wants to deepen its roots, beyond being the source of talent for Tampa Bay employers. It wants to be the hometown team. It wants loyalty, even love.

And that requires a coherent message.

"Like a badly named baby," a St. Petersburg Times editorial once said, "the University of South Florida has an identity crisis whose origins date back to its birth."

To be fair, when USF was born in 1956, it was the southernmost university in Florida. And there were far more confusing names on the table: University of the Western Hemisphere. Florida Peninsular State. The University of Temple Terrace.

"Can you imagine if today we were trying to explain to people where Temple Terrace was?" said Andrew Goodrich, senior associate athletic director for external relations. "So we think we have it bad, but not that bad."

One thing being considered, said USF trustee and advertising executive Jordan Zimmerman, is referring to USF as "the University of South Florida Tampa Bay."

Overall, USF wants to be seen as a knowledge powerhouse, more so than an athletic one. But leaders know athletics can be a gateway, and the story of USF’s image is intertwined with sports.

The university’s first mascot was the Golden Brahman, since Florida was a cattle-raising state. (Rejected: Chickens, Olympians, Camels.) It wasn’t until the 1980s that USF became the Bulls.

It took decades to launch a football team, which debuted in 1997. Less inspiring was the Iron Bull logo, a dull silhouette that flattened sales. By the time the Bulls ascended to Division I, T-shirts were nowhere to be found.

By 2003, the Bulls had secured their first home game on national TV. Research grants hit $250 million. New Greek houses helped grow a much-desired residential identity.

Yet confusion endured. Sports commentators called the school "South Florida," conjuring images of the Miami skyline.

So USF put $200,000 into revamping the brand for the first time ever, looking to underscore its grand ambitions.

The school’s kelly green got a little darker, yellow gave way to gold, and the loopy oversized S in the USF logo matured into a serif. The Iron Bull was swapped out for an enduring symbol, the horned "Bull U," emblazoned on football helmets.

"South Florida" was no more. Here was USF.

Still, students mixed up USF and the University of Central Florida. TIME magazine writing about USF researchers studying the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, said they hailed from "SFU."

Even this year, USF’s football coach met with breathless high schoolers who asked, "Weren’t y’all the team that went undefeated?"

That was UCF.

Student Kaitlyn Evans, 22, grew up in Orlando, but only became aware of USF’s presence in the last few years.

"Their accomplishments aren’t spread widely enough," she said. "You should at least know USF is there down the road."

The lingering mix-ups underscore the difficulty of the task ahead: To clearly, concisely tell the world exactly who, what, and yes, where, USF is.

"We haven’t yet seen the kids come up who say, ‘When I was 10 years old I sat on my dad’s lap when we beat Notre Dame, and now I’m 30 years old and I’m buying tickets and I’m going to love USF forever,’" Goodrich said. When that happens, "This place is going to explode."

No matter the age, it’s hard to market a college, up against thousands of competitors all plagued by the same cliches.

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"I see so many schools with these ridiculous taglines like ‘Duty, honor, learning,’" said Roger Dooley, a college marketing expert. "What the heck does that mean? How does that differentiate you from a thousand other schools?"

Getting it right means leaving a lot on the cutting room floor. Even at UF, before Hice helped launch its iconic "Gator Nation" campaign, there were some unfortunate rejects, Hice said, most notably "An unparalleled university experience that lasts a lifetime."

Imagine that on a T-shirt.

USF hasn’t locked into "Be Bullish," but it’s the frontrunner among ideas including, "Be Herd," "The speed of USF" and "Let’s build something."

USF has been using "Unstoppable" for its fundraising campaign, but the phrase has gone quiet of late since the $1 billion goal was achieved.

The winning slogan has to work across a system made up of three institutions and 50,000 students. It needs to work for engineering and fine arts, police and lacrosse. It has to work on hoodies and billboards and Twitter.

Perhaps even more important than a rallying cry is the push for a unified theme. Last year, Hice showed school officials some of the 80-plus logos across campus. There was a shiny gold USF Health logo in retro 3D, a Bull U with a stethoscope, a parade of clip art bulls.

The audience groaned.

"Coca-Cola has one mark," Zimmerman said. "We as a university have to have one mark that lives dynamically through every aspect of our university: The same look, the same feel, the same type, kerned the same way, so we speak with one voice."

Genshaft has said the push will require serious discipline, "so people do know, right away, the iconic view: That’s the University of South Florida."

Hice will hold a university-wide "brand summit" this month to talk ideas ahead of a full-court marketing push this summer. The budget remains to be determined.

Some trustees have asked whether USF can be like Nike, instantly recognizable. Actually, Hice said, the Bull U is the school’s Nike swoosh. And he plans on keeping it.

The U is asymmetrical, hard to center on a ballcap.

"But that tells a story," Goodrich said. "Listen — we’re on the move. We’re not sitting still. You can’t square us up, boom, we’re moving."

Look at the negative space between each column of the U, he said. It makes a T. The University of South Florida, Tampa. A secret in plain sight.

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.

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USF works to remake its muddled brand. Right now, ‘it doesn’t really say anything’