Many authors recognize the links between brand logos and identity, but aside from being mere symbols of the organizations that they represent, brand logos are also physical objects with a location and context in which they are interpreted. In this article, we analyze the logo as a physical artifact in relation to its place and physical surroundings in a Finnish university merger. We utilize longitudinal survey data from 140 respondents, and through thematic analysis, we show how employees interpret the logo and its meaning in relation to place and how day-to-day use and management actions affect its interpretation. We argue that logos should be addressed as physical artifacts that can function as identity markers at the organizational level and a mere change of visual elements can, therefore, profoundly alter the sense and identity of a place. This study enhances understanding of brand logos in relation to place and emphasizes their significance during organizational change.
As visual representations of the organization, brand logos can be used to convey symbolic meaning, such as organizational characteristics (van Riel and van den Ban 2001, p. 437) or strategic choices (Baker and Balmer 1997; Machado et al. 2012). Although in the modern visual world, they are carefully crafted to present the organization to various stakeholder groups, their intended symbolism does not exist in a vacuum: they are always interpreted in relation to the entity that they represent (e.g., Erjansola et al. 2021; Mueller and Schade 2012) and the context in which they are presented (e.g., Baruch 2006; Vilnai-Yavetz and Rafaeli 2006). Thus, the intended meaning of the logo can become distorted by expectations and reception (Hatch and Rubin 2006, pp. 46–48).
As a visual brand element, logos can be applied to any form of communication, such as documents, websites, or even buildings (van den Bosch et al. 2006, p. 871). Hence, they always have a physical surrounding and a place where they are encountered and interpreted. At the same time, the logo can be viewed as an expression of management strategy and a symbol of organizational culture (Hatch and Rubin 2006, p. 42). Thus, in this article we approach the logo as a physical artifact with instrumentality, esthetics, and symbolism (Vilnai-Yavetz and Rafaeli 2006). Although it is a symbolic product of graphic design, it is always presented through a physical form in a physical environment.
In this article, we analyze how employees of a Finnish university evaluate a new logo as a physical object and in relation to place in a rebranding situation. University is a high-involvement service organization (Vilnai-Yavetz and Tifferet 2013, p. 1546), where the marketization trend has led to increased interest in brand management (Wedlin, 2008). As a provider of intangible products, the university is a context that suits our study well, because physical symbols have been shown to increase tangibility and thus to improve consumer attitudes and behavior with intangibles (Koernig, 2003). Also, both logos and place have received increasing attention in the fields of marketing and management. Although physical presence has been an important aspect in product design (Belboula and Ackermann 2021, p. 2) and logos have been studied in this regard, this is to our knowledge one of the first studies in which the logo is analyzed in relation to place. Studies focusing on the meaning of logos from the employee perspective are also scarce (for an exception see Bolhuis et al. 2018).
Several authors have noted the significance of artifacts in organizational life. An artifact has instrumentality, esthetics, and symbolism, of which the esthetic (e.g., Bresciani and Del Ponte 2017; Doyle and Bottomley 2006; Henderson and Cote 1998) and symbolic (e. g. Erjansola et al. 2021; Park et al. 2013; van Riel and van den Ban 2001) dimensions of logos are well established. From an instrumental perspective, the purpose of the logo is to create distinctiveness between organizations (Foroudi et al. 2017) and—as a source of identity—unity within the organization (Gregersen and Johansen 2018). For the organization, the logo’s purpose is to separate us from them, i.e., to function as an identity marker that is physically present at the workplace. Elsbach (2004, 2006) has analyzed physical identity markers as sources of identity within the organization, but there are no prior studies on physical identity markers that function at the organizational level. The question is highly relevant, especially in rebranding and merger settings.
From these premises, we developed the following research questions:
How does the logo relate to place and its physical surroundings in a rebranding situation?
How does the logo function as a physical artifact and physical identity marker in a rebranding situation?
Using qualitative analysis, we tap into how the logo relates to its physical surroundings in a merger-induced rebranding setting. Our focus is on the meaning of the logo as an expression and symbol of the organization. During a merger, the logo might be the only visual cue of change in the workplace; hence it provides an interesting opportunity for analysis.
Logo as a Physical Artifact
Developing a corporate visual identity is a process of discovery in which the essence of the organization is revealed (van den Bosch et al. 2005, p. 109). At the heart of the process, there is the corporate logo, which is the official graphical symbol and the symbolized manifestation of the organization. In marketing research, the logo is traditionally viewed as a brand management tool that is targeted towards external stakeholders, such as customers. In this regard, a logo can evoke recognition and recall (Henderson and Cote 1998, p. 15) and contribute to customer commitment and firm performance (Park et al. 2013, p. 186). Logos can also convey symbolic meaning, such as brand associations (Erjansola et al. 2021, p. 249) or strategic choices (van den Bosch et al. 2005, p. 111), or they can also function as building blocks for self-image and group identity for internal stakeholders (Baruch 2006, p. 182). As components of identity and image, they can also create group distinctiveness at the organizational level. Thus, logos should be considered organizational artifacts (Baruch 2006, p. 183).
As symbolic artifacts, logos are designed to convey meaning (Baruch 2006, p. 182). In this sense, they are a means of communication that management uses to present the organization and its image. On the other hand, logos also have a physical nature, which becomes evident when we consider the typical contexts in which they appear: on packaging, business cards, and marketing materials, as well as buildings and virtual places such as websites and social media. Belboula and Ackermann (2021, p. 9) consider logos to be physical brand elements that are critical to service brands, because they make their intangible nature tangible. Thus, a logo can be viewed as an organizational artifact with a physical form.
Physical artifacts are artificial human-made products, which are elements of any working environment. Three dimensions are essential to the analysis of artifacts: instrumentality, esthetics, and symbolism. (Vilnai-Yavetz and Rafaeli 2006). Instrumentality refers to the extent by which an artifact increases or decreases performance in an individual task or towards individual or organizational goals. Esthetics refers to the sensory experience elicited by the artifact, which is always judged in relation to the context of the task at hand. Symbolism, on the other hand, refers to the meaning or associations that the artifact elicits, which can be intended or unintended. Artifacts are therefore any man-made product with a function, esthetic appeal, and symbolic meaning.
Artifacts have also been linked to place identity (Foroudi et al. 2020, p. 329) and identification in the workplace. Elsbach (2004) defines physical identity markers as physical artifacts that cue or affirm a person’s social or personal identity. The size of an office can signal one’s status as a manager, and personal items on a desk can speak of our affiliations with groups that define us, such as family or a sports team. Physical identity markers play an important role in how workplace identities are perceived, because they are relatively permanent and highly salient and can exist independently of their displayer (Elsbach 2006, p. 66). In this study we approach the logo as a physical artifact and physical identity marker that functions at the organizational level. Instead of creating distinctiveness between insiders, such as hierarchical levels or departments, the logo aims to create unity within the organization and distinctiveness from other organizations.
As a physical artifact the logo has instrumentality, esthetics and meaning, which are always evaluated in relation to the context of the task at hand (Vilnai-Yavetz and Rafaeli 2006, pp. 13–14). Hence, as a physical object, an artifact is always linked to a specific place.
Logo and Place
The definition of artifacts puts them in a location that affects how they are interpreted (Vilnai-Yavetz and Rafaeli 2006, p. 10), while Elsbach’s (2004, p. 100) conceptualizing puts physical identity markers in the workplace. A sign on a door or picture on the office wall may be interpreted differently depending on its location. Human geographers (Agnew 1987; Cresswell 2004, p. 132) have defined place as a “meaningful location” that has three fundamental aspects: location, locale, and sense of place. Location refers to fixed and objective coordinates, which can be located using a map, while locale refers to the material setting for social relations. Sense of place, on the other hand, refers to the emotional attachment that people have to a place. According to Cresswell (2004, pp. 10–11), a place always contains at least some of the aspects mentioned above, but not necessary all. A ship can be a meaningful place with no fixed location and an imaginary place can have materiality and meaning.
Agnew’s and Cresswell’s definitions of place emphasize social interaction, and place has also been considered an essential part of an individual’s self-concept, i.e., identity. Proshansky et al. (1983, p. 60) defined place identity as a sub-structure of self-identity, which they called a potpourri of memories, conceptions, interpretations, ideas, and related feelings towards physical settings. For them, place identity is the collection of experiences that affects what individuals consider a “good” or “bad” place—what we expect from physical surroundings and how we react to them. Given the social nature of place identity, it has also been considered a component of social identity (Rooney et al. 2010, p. 47).
Place has attracted increasing attention from both management and marketing scholars. Rooney et al. (2010) studied place identity during organizational change and found that, in addition to selecting environments that are congruent with their self-concepts (Twigger-Ross and Uzzell 1996, p. 208), people tend to remain in places that provide continuity. We respond to changes in the physical environment by defending our sense of connectedness and self-efficacy (Bonaiuto et al. 1996). Place can also be considered a discursive resource that employees can use to develop, promote, and protect their understanding of themselves and their organization (Brown and Humphreys 2006, p. 252). Therefore, from the perspective of management scholars, place plays an important role in organizational changes when workplace identities are under threat.
The marketing discipline, on the other hand, has focused on place branding, in which the identity of the place is pivotal for the brand. Kavaratzis and Hatch (2013, p. 82) consider place branding and place identity to be intertwined dialogical processes where place identity is the raw material of the place brand, which in turn affects identity by implanting meaning and new symbols into the culture of the place. For Kavaratzis and Hatch (2013), brand management is the management of perceptions that are formed through intentional and unintentional acts. Focusing on place identity and place architecture, Foroudi et al. (2020) showed how attitudes towards a place can lead to identification, and management of internal architecture can be used to build identification. Architecture, artifacts, and symbols can express the identity of the organization (Foroudi et al. 2019, 2020) and help group members to express their belonging to the group (Mueller and Schade 2012, p. 86). Hence, the meaning that brands convey always exists in a physical context.
Placing of logos has mainly been studied in relation to spatial presentations of packaging. Studies by Dong and Gleim (2018) and Sundar and Noseworthy (2014) have, for example, shown how placing the logo high on the package can increase purchase intentions (Dong and Gleim, 2018; Sundar and Noseworthy, 2014). In this study, however, we focus on the logo as a physical artifact that has symbolism and instrumentality for the organization that it represents as well as for the employees who use the logo in their work. The logo is a physical identity marker, which creates unity within the organization and distinctiveness between us and relevant others. The esthetics of an artifact depends on its instrumentality and location. Therefore we also analyze the logo in relation to the places where it is presented and that become meaningful for its users. Our research takes place in a rebranding context that has been induced by a university merger.
The field of Finnish Higher Education has witnessed significant changes over the past decades. In 2010 the Finnish government implemented a new university act, which was driven by economic forces (Puusa and Kekäle 2015, p. 434). The new university act signified a shift towards marketization, and mergers have been common: Aalto University and the University of Eastern Finland were founded in 2010 and the University of Arts in 2013. This study focuses on Tampere University (TAU), which was founded in January 2019 following the merger of the University of Tampere (UTA) and the Tampere University of Technology (TUT). The founding of Tampere University was the fourth university merger in Finland following the new university act, dropping the number of universities in Finland from 19 in 2009 to 13 in 2019. The new university also became a major shareholder of the Tampere University of Applied Sciences (TAMK, in Finnish). The whole entity constituted by TAU and TAMK is called the Tampere Universities Community (TUNI).
Tampere University is governed by a private fund and is the second largest university in Finland. The university is multidisciplinary, combining research and education from the fields of technology, health, and social sciences. Overall, the university consists of seven faculties, with approximately 4200 employees and 21,000 students. In addition, TAMK employs around 700 people and has nearly 10,000 students.
A new unified visual identity, consisting of logo, slogan, and color, was also created for the three parties of the community. The logo was revealed to the public and the university community less than a year before the actual merger. What began as a rather good reception changed in February 2020. A student organization made a parody version of the logo, leading the university’s marketing department to cite the trademark act to stop the use of the parody version. This stirred up a strong debate around the management’s actions and the restrictions on the use of the logo. As a result, several students and university employees started to create parody versions of the logo to criticize the management for being overly protective and not letting the community make the logo its own. The resulting social media stir also received attention in the Finnish national media (Koskinen 2020) and newspapers (Körkkö 2020). The data used in this study was collected shortly before these events (Fig. 1).
The university is situated in the city of Tampere and consists of three campuses located around the city. The City Centre campus, named for its central location, focuses on social sciences and other human sciences. Before the merger, it was the location of the main building of the University of Tampere. Hervanta campus is located approximately 10 km from the city center. It revolves around technology and was the campus of the Tampere University of Technology. Medicine, health, and life sciences are based in the Kauppi campus in the immediate vicinity of Tampere University Hospital, 5 km from the city center. Before the merger, the Kauppi campus was part of the University of Tampere. The premises of the Tampere University of Applied Sciences are located next to the Kauppi campus. The pre-merger organizations were separate and located around Tampere, but now through the new common logo, the three campuses are connected visually, creating consistency between them.
This study utilizes open-ended and longitudinal data, which was collected in two waves in May 2019 and January 2020 as a part of a large research project. The surveys were distributed to all employees of the Tampere Universities Community and a total of 1374 respondents answered to both waves. Thus, approximately 30% of employees responded to both waves of the survey, in which they were asked to describe the images that the new logo brought to their minds in a few words. A picture of the logo was presented as a stimulus, and in the second wave the respondents were also asked whether their impression of the logo had changed over the past year.
Our study was tightly focused, so, following our research question, we applied a theoretical sampling approach to the qualitative data. We first removed respondents who had not answered all of the logo-related questions in both survey waves, leaving us with 497 respondents. After this, two researchers selected all responses in which a reference to place, physical surroundings, or the logo as a physical object was found, leading to a final sample of 140 individual responses that answered all of the logo questions in both waves. During the selection, the two researchers worked closely and discrepancies were discussed and resolved as they arose. Based on the background information, the final sample represented the organization fairly well (see Table 1).
In our qualitative analysis, we followed a theory-guided iterative approach. We move back and forth between data and theory, identifying latent themes on how the logo relates to its physical environment. Due to the nature of our research questions, each respondent was analyzed as a single data point. We did not focus on changes in responses between time points, but instead combined the survey waves of each respondent into a single document using the longitudinal design to build a comprehensive view of the thoughts of each respondent. This approach was also backed up by the data, as many respondents seemed to continue their initial response and made references to their prior responses.
Following the guidelines of King and Brooks (2018) we began the process of analysis by reading through the sample to understand how the respondents linked the logo to its physical environment. Based on our initial reading of the sample, we looked specifically for instances in which the respondents referred to specific locations or places where the logo was physically present. Even at this stage, three separate themes had already begun to emerge. The first theme dealt with placement of the logo, the second with using the logo, and the third with its communicative nature. An archetype of the first was how the logo looked in a certain location, and of the second how it was unsuitable for certain uses. The third theme seemed the most difficult to define, as it contained place-related symbolic meanings, such as the city of Tampere, and how the logo was used by the organization to convey messages. We also noticed that there were several comments referring to the actions of management and how they affected how the logo was interpreted.
Once we had familiarized ourselves with the data, we coded the entire data set with the three themes of placing, using, and communicating. At this point, we noticed that, under the placing theme, the emphasis was on how the logo was viewed in various locations. After a closer analysis of the themes, we also identified a distinction between whether the logo was used by the respondent or their peers in their day-to-day activities, or by the management of the organization in marketing activities. Hence, we refined the using theme to contain only comments that referred to use by the respondent or their peers. After this distinction, we also revisited the communication theme, which consisted of symbolic meanings and uses of the logo by university management. At this point we noticed that, in addition to the symbolism of the logo, the actions of management also became symbolized in it. The logo was, for example, described as controlling, which reflected how the management controlled the use of the logo. Hence, we included the comments about management actions under this theme, which was renamed symbolism.
After we had refined the themes, we coded the entire data set with the refined coding scheme. In total there were 64 quotations from 52 respondents that referred to the placement of the logo, 98 quotations from 76 respondents that referred to using the logo, and 52 quotations from 45 respondents referring to symbolism. Once the themes were established, we started to analyze them in-depth to identify emerging sub-categories. Eight sub-categories were identified based on the analysis. The analytical steps were performed in cooperation by two researchers—first separately and then by comparing our findings and thoughts. Possible inconsistencies were discussed and resolved in cooperation.
As a result of this process, place was divided into three sub-categories of intentional and unintentional interpretations and excessive use of the logo. The theme was named “Placed to watch,” indicating an emphasis on how the logo was seen by different stakeholders in different places. Use was divided into three sub-categories of practicality, credibility, and modifying the logo to suit specific needs. The theme was named “Used in practice,” indicating an emphasis on the day-to-day activities of either the respondent or their peers. Symbolism was divided into two sub-categories of conveyed meanings and management actions. The theme was named “Symbolized actions and meaning,” indicating the emphasis on conveyed symbolic meaning and management actions.
Our analysis identified three themes on how the logo is linked to its physical environment and how it is referred to as a physical object. The logo was placed to be seen, used in practice, and conveyed symbolic meaning that was affected by management actions. All three themes were intertwined in a cyclical process. The placing of the logo affects its meaning and use, and it can be viewed as a symbolic action. Practical use of the logo has a physical context, i.e., place, and it takes place within boundaries set by management. The symbolism of the logo emerges from the meaning and actions of the organization, which affect how the logo is interpreted and used. In the following section we go through the categories of place, use and symbolism in greater detail (Table 2).
Placed to Watch
The first theme referred to various locations where the logo was placed in either physical or virtual places, such as campuses, the walls of buildings, or the university website. In many instances, the emphasis was on how the logo looked, and the referenced viewer could be either the respondent themselves, i.e., how the logo looks for me, or an imagined external stakeholder group, such as the international scientific community. Under this theme we identified three sub-categories: intentional interpretations, unintentional interpretations, and excessive use of the logo, which caused frustration and negative feelings towards the logo.
Intentional interpretations were typically positive and arguably in line with what was sought with the placing of the logo. The logo had become a part of its surroundings, creating distinction and positive associations. The interpretations were supported by placing and how the respondent viewed the meaning of the logo and actions of management. The context where the logo was presented could also guide its interpretation, such as in this quotation.
TUT6: “…After someone explained the face, I saw it but it's still a bit weird to me. The poster with the logo overlapping the face helps.”
In this quotation, the context of the logo—a marketing poster with the logo overlapping a face—makes it understandable and easier for the respondent to accept. The unintentional interpretations, on the other hand, were mostly negative and linked to images of surveillance, control, and to an authoritarian feel, but also experiences of not belonging to the community.
TAU12: “I saw it in the city, not at work. I didn’t feel part of that community.”
The previous quotation is a typical negative sentiment, but in addition the respondent expresses their detachment from the organization. Excessiveness, on the other hand, meant that the logo was mounted on places that it did not fit, or it was overused, causing frustration and boredom for many respondents. Both interpretations of surveillance and excessiveness are present in the quotation below:
TUT7: “scary, big brother is watching you, the common events of university with huge banners of the logo don’t really reduce this impression. Also that purple colour is placed everywhere – it’s annoying.”
Here, the logo, along with its physical environment, creates images of control. The same context can, however, lead to very different interpretations. In the following quotation, the presence of the logo at an event inspired the respondent to consider its symbolism, which is interpreted in a positive manner.
TAMK2: “Today, when I saw the logo in an event, for the first time I got the feeling that the logo is actually pretty cool and thought-provoking; is the character a man or a woman, what the emotional state of the character is, whether it has a stylized T letter depicting Tampere, and so on.”
In this quotation, as in many intentional interpretations, the logo is complemented for its symbolism and esthetics, which become evident in a certain place and context.
Used in Practice
The second theme referred to the use of the logo. The emphasis was on how the respondents or their peers used the logo in their day-to-day activities; hence, for example, how management used the logo was left out of this theme. In the responses, the logo was used, for example, on business cards, PowerPoint slides, diplomas, and websites. For this theme we identified three sub-categories, which were: modifying the logo, the credibility of the logo, and how the logo fulfilled practical needs.
Practical needs were addressed in relation to various places and contexts where the logo was present. There were negative experiences, where the logo was considered impractical for websites or presentations due to its layout or color. Positive experiences highlighted how the logo was practical and how the respondent had got used to using it. In many cases the use of the logo changed the experience towards a more mundane reaction:
TAU13: “It’s more familiar and I feel safer the more used to it I get. I gladly use the university’s materials, the audience complement the purple colour.”
TAMK3: “At first I rejected it, but I have become accustomed to it. The graphic instructions are good and clear.”
Here, after initial rejection, the logo has become a practical tool that is used in day-to-day activities. In addition to practical concerns, credibility was also a major issue for many. The university was viewed as an academic community that should hold to certain standards, and the change towards a branded logo was seen as demeaning. The branded logo was unsuitable for many academic applications, such as diplomas and conference presentations.
The lack of credibility was also closely linked to feelings of shame and embarrassment, which are linked to identification, thus highlighting the logo’s function as a physical identity marker.
TAU14: “Cold, robot-like face, faceless or someone without personality, doesn’t have any prestige, institutional traditions, I feel ashamed to put that kind of a mark e.g., on students’ applications for postgraduation studies”
Here, the use of the logo in official documentation causes a feeling of shame, which is attributed to a loss of the traditions and prestige of the organization. In a similar vein, the use of a business card with the logo was described as embarrassing:
TAU15: “The logo is so ugly and the [slogan] so embarrassing that I haven’t ordered business cards at all. I wouldn’t dare to share those in international contexts.”
In these quotations, the respondents see the logo as unfit for the organization, which brings forth negative reactions. To present themselves and their university to colleagues from other universities in this light would be shameful and embarrassing; hence, the logo signifies their in-group identity in relation to others and functions as a physical identity marker at the organizational level.
The third significant sub-category was logo modifications, where respondents sought the opportunity to contextualize the logo to suit their purposes, be they parody versions or localizations for specific purposes, such as presentations and events. Many respondents also referred to management reactions to the modifications.
TAU16: “I heard that during Christmas time some professor drew a Christmas hat for the logo, and was reprimanded for it. How straight-laced!”
TUT8: “I don't appreciate the forceful protection of the logo. TUT's wheel was a vibrant logo, whose richness was that student organizations were allowed to customize it to suit themselves.”
Here, the respondents would like to retain the right to modify the logo, while management sets boundaries for its use. Management is criticized for this control, which limits the ability of employees to make the logo their own.
Symbolized Actions and Meaning
The third and final theme had a management perspective and we identified two sub-categories focusing on the actions of management and what the logo symbolizes. The responses referred to the various ways in which the logo is used in official settings, the messages it conveys, and how the actions of management affect how the logo is perceived. A link between symbolized actions and meanings with the other two categories was strongly present in the data.
TAU17: “It unites the buildings of different campuses.”
TAU18: “It symbolizes management’s desire to control the community, you can’t say “tuni” (although it is our domain and everybody’s email!) and you can’t play with the logo, etc, etc.”
In the first quotation, placing of the logo is a management action, which creates consistency and unity within locations. Thus the logo functions as a physical identity marker of the new organization: in the places where there were various organizations before the merger, there is now just the new one.
In the second quotation, the respondent criticizes management for setting boundaries for logo use, which in turn affects how the logo is perceived and understood. The logo becomes a symbol of management action through the respondents’ needs for practical use. The attempts to protect the brand by controlling the logo also impaired how the logo was perceived, leading to resistance and negative feelings towards management and the merger.
TAU19: “This is due to the incomprehensible idea of the brand office that the staff must not modify the logo for different contexts in any way or make it their own, even in a positive sense… This is just one example of how the organization is led these days – we have changed from independent academic thinkers, who passionately practice science and bring success to the university, to minions and subjects of bureaucrats.”
The respondent expresses how their image of the logo has deteriorated due to management’s control of the logo, which is interpreted in this context.
According to the designers, the logo was meant to represent a human face, multidisciplinary, openness, and Tampere with the letter T (Kerola 2018). These symbolized meanings, which can be considered intentional communication by the university management, were also present in the data:
TUT9: “’My University’, Tampere, technology, and people”.
Here the respondent sees people, the organization, and its hometown as well as the field of her pre-merger organization in the logo, indicating a positive response and identification with the new university. A contradictory negative interpretation was, however, also present.
TAU20: “…the face, in its masculinity, excludes women and non-binary and emphasizes technical fields (because man is portrayed this way in our culture). The character’s eyes are closed and his face is not human or intact. The letter T is broken and does not create an image of integrity and consistency… The logo evokes feelings of alienation whenever I see it on letterheads or elsewhere, and it reminds me that the university has been taken over by a foreign faceless power and selfish market forces on the university board.”
In the quotation, the respondent sees the face as masculine and feels alienated from the university. The intended message is lost, and seeing the logo during day-to-day activities causes discomfort. The “broken” letter T signifies inconsistency, which contradicts the sense of unity across campuses and buildings. There is also criticism towards a market orientation that is not in line with how the respondent sees the university. A similar criticism is present in the following quotations, where the respondents criticize what the logo says about the university:
TAU21: “A logo is a powerful tool of communication, and I think using this kind of logo doesn’t reflect the idea of what a university is.”
TAU22: “Modern, perhaps, but still the university’s old academic logo was much better. It broke my heart when they ripped the old logo off the wall.”
In the first quotation the significance of the logo as a tool of communication is recognized, while its symbolic meaning is questioned. The second respondent on the other hand expresses discontinuity, that becomes symbolized with the action of “ripping the old logo of the wall.”
In this article we have shown how a logo relates to its physical environment and how place can affect its interpretation. In a rebranding context, the intended meaning of the logo is interpreted in relation to actions of management, places where the logo is presented, and contexts where it is used. Thus, a logo is a physical artifact with esthetic appeal, instrumentality, and symbolism, and treating it as merely a symbol can dampen organizational success.
To summarize our results, the logo is placed in various locations for different stakeholders to see, and its esthetics depend on the context and physical surroundings in which it is presented. In addition to the intended messages that the logo conveys, its symbolism can become distorted with unintentional interpretations and excessive use. Also, the logo serves several instrumental functions in day-to-day tasks, i.e., it is used in practice. Employees may—in addition to practical concerns—raise issues regarding the credibility of the logo and their ability to localize it for different purposes. Finally, the logo also serves symbolic purposes. It conveys symbolic meaning, and its interpretation can be affected by the actions of the management of the organization. Meaning and actions that become symbolized in the logo can intertwine with its interpretation and use.
As a result of our analysis, we propose the model presented in Fig. 2. The three main categories of symbolism, place, and use intertwine in the rebranding context of our study into a cyclical process. The logo conveys symbolized meanings that are affected by the actions of the management. The logo is placed for various stakeholder groups to see, and the placing is also a management action that affects how the logo is interpreted. Employees use the logo in day-to-day activities within boundaries that are set by the management. Use and boundaries are negotiated between employees and management, which can lead to changes in management activities. Based on our analysis, we conclude that a logo can function as an identity marker at the organizational level and a mere change in visual identity can drastically affect employees’ sense of place.
This study strengthens our understanding of how employees receive and interpret logos during organizational change, thus shedding light on how to effectively manage visual identity changes in university mergers. Prior studies have shown that university logos can face severe resistance, particularly in the first years following a merger (Erjansola et al. 2021). Based on our analysis, it is evident that neglecting the nature of a logo as an artifact can play a significant role in the reaction. Reflecting Vilnai-Yavetz and Rafaeli (2006, pp. 17–19), it can be argued that in the case of a logo, the instrumental dimension in particular may go unnoticed, as well as the complexity arising from different esthetic combinations, e.g., places and contexts, as well as actions and meanings that are interpreted by employees.
Based on our analysis, we also conclude that, as an artifact, the logo can function as a physical identity marker, creating distinctions between organizations, i.e., distinguishing our social group from others. In a merger setting, however, a new shared logo can diminish the distinction between merger partners, creating a threat to social distinctiveness by lowering group boundaries (Elscbach, 2003, pp. 625–626). At its best, this can result in a sense of unity, but it can also result in resistance, a sense of detachment, and loss of identification. In this study, this was particularly evident in the outcomes of using the logo in practice, where using the logo brought feelings of shame and embarrassment to the forefront.
As an artifact, the logo is used by employees, thus strengthening the link between user and symbol. According to Kuoppakangas et al. (2020, p. 101) a key issue in university internal branding is the willingness of people to engage in the process, while Clark et al. (2020, p. 143) have emphasized the significance of mid-level managers. Our findings show that, to engage university staff, the values communicated by the logo should be in line with those of the employee. Moreover, external and internal factors may intervene with the internal branding process (Clark et al. 2020, p. 145). This study shows how these factors, such as actions of management, can affect the meaning that employees draw from the logo. The symbol becomes entangled with context, i.e., the logo with actions of management and physical surroundings where it is seen and used.
If we look at the case at hand and implementation of the new logo in the work environment through sense of place and place identity, it is clear that changes in visual identity can drastically alter the sense of a place and disrupt place identity, which in prior studies has been shown to cause dis-location of identity (Dixon and Durrheim 2000, p. 36). The new logo can create detachment from the workplace by not being in line with what is considered a “good” place. In this study, the new place, which the logo represents, is not a place of diversity and academic freedom, but one of masculinity and authoritarian surveillance: an interpretation born at the intersection of esthetics, place, and symbolized actions and meaning.
A central concept for place identity and organizational change is continuity: people tend to remain in places that provide it (Rooney et al. 2010 pp. 64–65) and it has been shown to foster organizational identification during organizational mergers (Giessner 2011, p. 339). It has been suggested that, during organizational changes, people would like to feel that they still work in the same place and for the same organization (Jetten et al. 2002; van Knippenberg et al. 2002), and based on this study it is evident that the implementation of a new logo can disrupt this sense of continuity. The visual change in the work environment can remind one of the change, and the logo’s meaning to an individual can contradict past experiences. Thus, aligning the identity of the place with identity elements—as suggested by Foroudi et al. (2020, p. 330)—can be a challenging task in organizational mergers.
From a marketing perspective, the question of continuity and consistency is particularly interesting, as consistency of visual elements is usually taken for granted (Gregersen and Johansen 2018; van den Bosch et al. 2006). From this perspective there seems to be a contradiction between the needs of internal and external stakeholders, and organizations will need to consider a tradeoff between temporal continuity and spatial consistency. An interesting example in this regard is provided by Melewar and Akel (2005) and Drori et al. (2013) who presented the rebranding of University of Warwick, where the old and traditional crest was reserved for events that require a traditional touch. A similar strategy, where the demands of modern branding are balanced with history and continuity, has also been implemented in various other universities, such as Yale and the London School of Economics.
Finally, our analysis clearly shows the tension between the meaning and interpretation of the logo in the context of a university merger. Therefore, the process could be interpreted as a hermeneutic process, where the intended meaning of the logo is received in a cultural context. Following the hermeneutic approach to branding (Gadamer 1994; Hatch and Rubin 2006), it could be argued that the intended meaning of synergy between human and technology is interpreted as a symbol of control and surveillance in the context of the merger. Thus, although logos can be produce positive effects on consumer behavior (Settembre-Blundo et al. 2018, p. 195), organizations should pay close attention to their implementation.
Limitations and Future Directions
This study focuses on a single organization within the higher education sector. Universities are high-involvement services (Vilnai-Yavetz and Tifferet 2013, p. 1546) with multiple stakeholders and employees with potentially limited allegiance to the organization (Chapleo 2011, pp. 419–420). They are also often closely linked to their geographical regions (Drori et al. 2016, p. 174) and in many cases they utilize historical buildings with central locations. Hence it is unclear how the results generalize to other organizations in other industries. The study does, however, offer an interesting starting point to broaden such inquiry across industries and cultural contexts.
We analyzed the data in relation to place and physical surroundings and found three response categories towards the logo, which corresponded with the three dimensions of artifacts. It would be interesting to study the different dimensions across various contexts. In the case presented here, it seemed that the instrumental dimension was overlooked, but is this a universal trend with logos or does it differ based on some criteria? Our case also represents a branded house approach, where a single logo represents the whole organization. What would be the case in a house of brands, for example? In a similar vein, logo research could scrutinize various types of artifacts where the logo is present.
Most studies regarding physical identity markers have focused on artifacts within the workplace (see for example Elsbach 2003, 2004), where the artifact signifies identity in relation to other people within the organization. To our knowledge, this is the first study in which the artifact signifies identity in relation to people outside the organization. We believe that the study of identity markers at the organizational level opens up interesting avenues for future research, especially in the context of rebranding and organizational mergers. In particular, the tradeoff between continuity and consistency would require further elaboration.
Finally, as this study focused on employees in the Higher Education sector, it is unclear how the results generalize to other stakeholder groups or other industries. In a university context, an interesting group would be students, who also express themselves with the visuals of the university, but do not necessarily experience the change in the same way as employees. An interesting case, in relation to other industries, could be sales personnel of merging service companies, who need to present the logo of their new employer as part of their sales presentations. Based on this study, we fail to see why the findings would not hold in other service industries where employees present their organization in a manner that links it tightly to themselves and their self-presentation.
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Erjansola, AM., Virtanen, L. & Lipponen, J. “It Broke My Heart When They Ripped the Old Logo Off the Wall”: Places, Uses and Meanings of the Rebranded Logo. Corp Reputation Rev (2022). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41299-022-00147-7
- Brand logo
- Organizational artifact
- Physical artifact
- Place identity
- Sense of place
- Mergers and acquisitions