Several months after Tennessee suddenly announced it was almost completely doing away with the Lady Vols nickname, an email released by the university gives some insight into why many alumni had no idea it was even being considered. It’s because Nike’s advice to Tennessee was to shut up.
Or, more specifically: “Because your brand has an emotional connection with your students, staff and alumni, it is critical to keep the development of the work confidential and on a need-to-know basis.” And it’s worth noting they said this to a public university, which is expected to conduct certain business in the open.
This all began when Tennessee stirred up anger among its students and supporters by announcing it was ditching the Lady Vols name for all its women’s sports teams, save basketball. The announcement came around the same time the university announced its move switch from Adidas to Nike for athletic apparel, and it didn’t take much logic to figure the two were connected.
My public records request for copies of communication with Nike was denied because I’m not a Tennessee resident, but a bunch of readers in Tennessee stepped up and resubmitted the request for us. The university’s first response was bullshit, a meaningless audit of mostly brand jargon. Four days after our post saying as much, Tennessee responded to everyone who had submitted a FOIA saying they were working on another response. Two months later, this new batch of records give some context to how a Nike redesign works.
These insights come from a packet attached to an email explaining how Nike’s “Graphic Identity Group” operates. First, they’re going to get get rid of all your school’s old logos and replace them with one new one. They’ll provide PR firepower on top of your school’s existing marketing machine to roll out the creation. The university even gets its very own Nike spokesperson. Just don’t tell anyone about it.
First, what does this group do? They walk around and ask some questions, although the packet describe this in much fancier terms.
The directions go on to note that not only does your university get a “brand strategy” but also a “positioning platform.” Nike provides the recommendations but says it is up to the university to “approve the package,” which sounds good until you try to think about when, if ever, a major university has said no to Nike. This is the same company that saw no problem telling Jimbo Fisher that his 9-year-old son had to change out of an Under Armour sweatshirt.
And who could possibly say no given the PR arsenal that Nike will provide?
Universities already spend tons of money on their own PR machines to do outreach, provide statements, and squash inquisitive press. But if the internal PR department handled this on its own, it might be subject to a public records request or deviate from what Nike demands.
Speaking of, next comes the part where Nike tells Tennessee to keep its work on the redesign quiet because of all those pesky emotions.
It’s worth pointing out that doing everything by phone call is a great way to avoid generating public records. That might not be why they did it, but it’s certainly a side bonus. The packet says research and analysis started way back in January 2014, and it managed to stay completely secret for more than a year.
Oh, and all this stuff Nike is doing for Tennessee has some strings attached.
The guide goes on to provide several case studies showing whatever the heck they do. Best I can tell, all Nike does is throw out all of a university’s various interesting logos and give them one really boring one. Here’s what happened at Duke.
And here’s Arizona State, in case you were wondering why there was less Sparky around. (According to Nike “ASU felt there was equity in Sparky as a mascot, but didn’t resonate with student athletes as a strong athletic mark.” The report also notes that Nike wanted to “avoid the mark being demonic in nature,” despite the team literally being named the Sun Devils.)
Their last example is the Oregon State Beavers.
Upside, they got to keep their beaver logo unlike the other universities included. Does Oregon State know how lucky it is?
Of course, nothing in this latest records release reveals anything about the actual dialogue between Tennessee and Nike over the rebranding—which seems to be the entire point.. The university said two scant emails and the attachment “are documents responsive to your request,” in which we had asked for all communication between Nike and the athletic and communications departments. Maybe this really is it because Nike has learned, post Jimbo edict, that emails are public records. Maybe Tennessee just wants us to go away. But what’s been released does provide a glimpse into how Nike (and very likely other billion-dollar athletic wear companies) remakes college athletic programs, one university at a time, in their own images, all while the NCAA clings to the faulty illusion that this isn’t about money at all.
The full graphic identity group packet and the email to which it was attached are below.