Bison, Blue: A Howard University Brand Journey

Howard University’s brand has been thrust into the spotlight as Vice President Kamala Harris, the history making alumnus, has put the historic institution in the public eye. Having had the tremendous honor of working with Howard to develop powerful University brands and campaigns, it has been incredibly gratifying to see so many aspects of those efforts featured prominently.

The Howard University logo is visible behind Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry as he applauds during a news conference at Langston Golf Course in Washington, Monday, Aug. 19, 2019, where Curry announced that he would be sponsoring the creation of men’s and women’s golf teams at Howard University. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Brand Project: Developing the Howard University Brand

Our first engagement with Howard University was to refine and redevelop the University’s brand. Like many institutions, Howard’s brand had become increasingly decentralized and ungoverned through years of evolving leadership and priorities. The inconsistencies and unsanctioned re-creation and use of core identity and messaging elements had become a large-scale challenge for the university.

One of the greatest challenges facing a university is developing a brand platform simple enough to be governed, while sophisticated enough to differentiate the institution.

The brand challenge

We had our work cut out for us, many core University brand elements had been altered and updated without governance, resulting in major inconsistencies across the University. Across departments, and even in Admissions, communications were radically inconsistent. Prospective students were receiving information and welcome kits with every element having a different look and feel. Inconsistent identity, color, typography, and messaging were compromising the university’s image, and it was clear that a system was needed to centralize and govern the brand.

The brand process

The process began with a strategic assessment of all University communications and tools, which were mapped to actual communication needs across the institution. We found that departmental and institution-wide communications had similar needs, but there was no shared structure to govern production and alignment of communications. The resulting inefficiencies and inconsistencies made it difficult for the University to present itself in a cohesive way, increasing brand confusion, as well as administrative burden and cost.

The brand platform

For the University identity, we recreated the existing clock tower logo and seal, updating them with new proportions and typography to reflect a higher level of sophistication. Other components of the platform included additional identities to accommodate different applications and aspects of the University. Updated typography, color palette, and design architecture was applied to the brand system which governed digital and social platforms, environmental and signage applications, and a comprehensive suite of print tools. The platform also included guidance on University narrative and brand messaging so that all aspects of the brand could be applied consistently across channels. It has been so gratifying to see Howard’s identity on display and consistently applied in its updated form.

Brand Project: Designing the Howard University Bison Identity

There’s only one Howard University Bison, so we set out to create a design unlike any other.

Having achieved success with the University brand development, we were engaged to create a new Howard University Bison mascot. The existing Bison logo was similar to the Buffalo Bills logo, and new NFL team ownership made it so that the University would have to create a new logo for their mascot. We were incredibly excited to be part of this effort, it was a dream project. Because the Bison symbol played such an important role at the University and its athletic program, it was critical to create an identity completely unique to Howard. We set out with one objective: To make Howard University’s mascot unlike any other bison out there. 

Engaging stakeholders

Given the importance of this effort, we engaged a broad range of stakeholders, from students and community, to faculty and alumni. We began the process by developing a social media campaign and social aggregator site to collect a broad range of feedback on the Bison’s significance and aspirations for the logo. The campaign achieved widespread response from the student body and other stakeholders, whose voices were reflected in our strategic development and approach.

Because there were many stakeholders and gaining consensus on a single direction would be difficult, we explored a wide range of solutions. Many approaches were developed and presented in contexts familiar to the committee so they would be able to visualize and relate to the identities in recognizable environments. This approach helped the presentations feel more real to the stakeholders and increased their excitement for the work.

Gaining consensus

Working through the brand process required great finesse, but ultimately, we achieved consensus. We then performed both objective and subjective brand research to help validate the selection for the President’s approval. By balancing subjective impressions with objective feedback on specific identity characteristics, we were able to gain valuable insight that helped achieve final approval for the selected direction.

Introducing the new bison

To introduce the new bison logo, we developed a campaign that was unveiled at Howard University’s famed Homecoming. Large banners were unfurled across campus, and a PR and social media campaign was launched to build earned and organic engagement. It was exciting to see the response to the new logo. There was so much positive feedback, and since its launch, the Bison identity has only gained in prominence. It is seen frequently on merchandise and in advertising and can even be found on the racks of major department stores as a lifestyle brand. That was the ultimate result we hoped for in doing this work—to create a symbol that can stand on its own with inspirational qualities that reach far beyond campus. 

Brand Project: Building the Bleed Blue Campaign

Another exciting project that we had the pleasure to work on was a spirit campaign promoted across the University in public spaces, buildings, lamp posts, and on merchandise in the University bookstore.

It was important to symbolize the University’s commitment to its students and legacy, as well as its purpose beyond education.

Reflecting a sense of pride

We developed the “Bleed Blue” campaign to reflect a sense of pride, belonging, and accomplishment, core to Howard University’s mission. We also set out to express these concepts in their simplest form, so they could achieve real impact. The campaign was designed to reflect three critical dimensions of the Howard experience and promise: The Howard legacy (Born Blue), the Howard spirit (Bleed Blue), and the Howard mission (Live Blue). An element of the campaign concept symbolized the connection between these important dimensions with a stylized blue ribbon that progressed throughout. The past, present, and the future all together promoting shared inspiration and commitment.

Brand Project: Creating the Howard University 150th Anniversary Brand

Possibly the most meaningful project we had the honor to support was the creation of the brand and theme for Howard University’s Sesquicentennial. Representing 150 years of such a storied institution would be no small task. The brand would serve as the backdrop for a year-long celebration of the University’s important history and vision for the future. A great deal of research and exploration was performed to inform the three distinct concept directions we developed. In one of the presentations, we put forward the theme, “The Time is Always Now,” inspired by James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many others who fought for, and continue to advance social justice and civil rights. Additionally, it represented the continuous cultural and intellectual accomplishments that the University creates a powerful environment for.

From theme to brand design

The theme, “The Time is Always Now,” was accompanied by an energetic brand design inspired by traditional African patterns symbolizing the many people, programs, and accomplishments that combine to shape Howard’s unique distinction. Throughout the Sesquicentennial year, the brand and its expressions served as bright symbols of Howard’s important legacy and its critical vision for the future.

What’s next for the Howard brand?

It has been so meaningful to work with Howard University on so many important projects. We’ve had the great fortune of partnering with brilliant teams across campus, including the Office of Communications, University Athletics, and The Office of the President. At every step, there were champions at the University who gave us the opportunity to do our best work and make it really matter. We look forward to seeing what comes next for Howard University’s brand and hope to be part of it. 

If your institution or organization needs to stand out in a purposeful and powerful way, we would love to partner with you. Let’s talk!

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