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Branding for the Future

March 13, 2023 - 9 minute read

When Dr. Michael Thomas came to serve as president of Concordia University Irvine, he soon tired of hearing people call the school “the best-kept secret in Orange County.”

“I finally said, ‘Please stop saying that,’” he recalls with a laugh. “Everyone who engages with us tends to love us, but apparently too few people know who we are. The assumption seemed to be that we couldn’t do anything about it.”

But with Concordia advancing in nearly every area — from new programs, to new buildings, to a new position in the NCAA DII — it was time to “speak in the marketplace with more clarity and a unified voice,” Thomas says. “We needed a fresh start in our storytelling.”

The Board of Regents fully agreed, and so the university embarked on a historic journey to rebrand itself, bringing its public face and messaging into alignment for greater effectiveness. After an extensive nation-wide market study and deep discussions with members of the Concordia community, the university unveiled a fresh new logo and an updated university seal, plus a united color palette of green and gold, a new marketing campaign and, in athletics, a revamped look and mascot.

“This rebrand is an important step in Concordia University Irvine’s history,” says Thomas. “We are telling our story more clearly, more boldly, and more widely.” 

The ambitious effort began with the selection of a company to help Concordia’s leaders gain insight into the market’s perception of the institution and to articulate and affirm its own core identity. After selecting five companies to make presentations, a group of campus leaders and the Board of Regents chose Kanahoma, led by marketing pioneer Seth Odell and a team of veteran branding experts.

Kanahoma launched a national marketing research study to find out what people really thought about Concordia.

Kanahoma surveyed and dialogued with approximately 5,000 people nationwide, mostly in small groups and surveys. They included traditional prospective students and their parents, prospective adult and online students, and the general population of Lutherans, Christians from other denominations, and non-Christians.

“Sure enough, our affinity score — what people think about our institution — was the highest Seth had ever seen,” says Thomas, “but our awareness score was among the lower he’d seen.”

George Allen ’11, Concordia’s associate vice president of marketing, worked closely with Odell, and says all audiences, even non-Christians, considered private, Christian universities to offer “high quality” education, and many strongly preferred a university with moral values.

“The importance of a university demonstrating strong values — integrity, honesty, and other such characteristics — was very resonant across all audiences,” Allen says.

"This Rebrand Is An Important Step In Concordia University Irvine's History. We Are Telling This Story More Clearly, More Boldly, And More Widely". 

The data made it clear: Concordia’s core identity is highly desirable in the education marketplace.

“Concordia is uniquely positioned as an institution that is both deeply committed to our Christian mission and Lutheran tradition while also being welcoming to students from all backgrounds who are interested and willing to engage and explore their future and faith with us,” Allen says.

In Thomas’s words, “Concordia charts a middle course between two extremes, between secularism and sectarianism.”

“We are not a university that has lost its way and lost its Christian confession,” he says. “But we're not sectarian, either. Every one of our faculty and staff are practicing Christians, and we welcome any student who’s willing to engage with our mission, who knows we are a Christian school and is willing to be challenged about his or her callings or vocations.”

Kanahoma also sought to understand thoroughly Concordia’s core characteristics through discussions with members of the campus community. 

Mark Brighton ’81, professor of biblical languages and literature, served on a steering committee

representing internal constituents. Brighton first came to campus in 1978 when the college “had one building and a bunch of weeds,” he says. He graduated from Christ College in 1981 and has spent 38 years serving as dean of worship, campus pastor, and professor of biblical languages and literature.

“I have roots in this institution, to its core vision, and a long history of how this university has articulated itself at various times and places, having served under every president,” Brighton says. “Our core values are what keep me here and keep me really motivated.”

In his view, “Concordia offers something uniquely valuable: a Christian university which unites liberal arts and theological studies in a holistic way. There are large questions that must be part of your education: Is there a God? How do I know there is? How does this God make himself known? What does it mean to be human? What is the nature of evil? If you can’t even ask these questions then everything else is distorted.”

The steering committee wanted the rebranding to present Concordia to the world in a way true to its values. “That was a non-negotiable for all of us,” Brighton says. “At the same time, we wanted to present ourselves so people would say, ‘Wow, they have something good going on there.’”

With the research results in hand, Concordia's leadership team challenged Kanahoma “to put together an elevated, classic brand worthy of us going into the second half of our first century,” says Thomas (Concordia will celebrate 50 years in 2026).

One non-negotiable, backed by the research findings, was that the logo would include a cross. “Many universities originally connected to the Church have lost their way and ultimately their distinctive identities and their purpose for being,” Thomas says. “But the research revealed what

we already knew in our hearts and minds. Proclaiming our Lutheran Christian identity is our strength because it is our true essence and it is our authentic identity.”

When Kanahoma presented its initial ideas, “It was said with such clarity that people had tears in their eyes,” Thomas says. “They understood our DNA after just a few days. This was heartening, because our true identity was palpable and immediately recognized. And they put it into clear, marketable language.”

Ron Levesque, chair of the Board of Regents, happened to be at a coffee shop in rural Kansas when the initial ideas were shared with the board. He attended by Zoom.

“I was very impressed,” he says. “The recommendations coming forward were excellent. When we wrapped up, I got my laptop, walked out and told my colleagues there, ‘That was fantastic.’” 

People described the new logo in different ways: “elegant,” “elevated,” “prestigious,” and “classic.”

“When you look at our new logo, you recognize us as a Christian university. That’s big, going forward,” says Levesque. “We are a Christian institution and instead of being quiet about it, we are being bold about it. We welcome anybody. We don’t build walls around ourselves, but when they come, they know we’re a Christian institution and we’re not going to waver from our theological convictions.”

On the athletics side, Concordia decided to solve its mascot problem. Conference fellow Biola University also uses an eagle as its mascot, and there aren’t many bald eagles on or around the Irvine campus anyway. So the new mascot became the Golden Eagle, which aligns the institution with the local bird population and with the unified color scheme of classic green and gold.

"When You Look At Our New Logo, You Recognize Us As A Christian University. That’s Big, Going Forward."

“The athletics branding is intentionally more modern and even somewhat aggressive, befitting our competitive athletics’ culture,” Thomas says. 

As one regent put it, “We love ya, but we’ll rip your heart out [on the playing field].”

Gone, too, are the varying letterheads, logos, and colors that had been in use. The university has unified its look and feel behind the two colors, specific fonts — and a new campaign, “Freedom to Explore.” 

Brighton explains, “‘Freedom to explore’ means faith here is not compulsory. You are free to examine questions of faith and theology without compulsion. You’re also free to ask questions that may be inappropriate at a state secular institution. We can talk about Jesus and how God answers questions in Jesus. The place of true freedom is what God says about you in Christ — that you are a re-created person, freed from the guilt of your brokenness and sin.”

He sees a greater opportunity to present Concordia’s Christ-centered values to a broader world. 

“I’m happy as I see the university continue to grow and have new ways to articulate our mission and our vision in various areas including athletics, nursing, engineering, business, computer science, and any other program,” he says. “Our values are non- negotiable, and there are a lot more opportunities to articulate this core vision about Christ and his re-creation and what that means for our lives.”

Levesque says a clarifying, unifying branding effort like this produces “an esprit de corps” that elevates the entire campus, which will soon see the transition of all signage to the new look and feel. This includes new entry signs where families can pose for photographs, plus upgraded campus signs, walkway markers, and gymnasium graphics, to name just a few.

The university also has begun rolling out an advertising campaign in places like John Wayne Airport and The District shopping center to introduce the public to its new look and messaging. 

“In ten to fifteen years from now, I want anyone in Orange County who sees green and gold on a billboard to know it’s Concordia,” Thomas says. 

“No longer will Concordia be a best-kept secret,” says Thomas. “We are going to boldly, clearly, and widely proclaim our excellence as a comprehensive Lutheran Christian university for students throughout the United States.”

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