We’ve called it “the Y” for decades. Now the organization will, too.
The YMCA made numerous national headlines this week; the iconic organization announced that the nonprofit will simply be called “the Y,” marking the first branding change in more than 40 years. I’ve followed the coverage with curiosity because serving the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee as public relations manager was my first PR gig after making the switch from a career in media.
“This is a very important, exciting time for the Y,” said Neil Nicoll, president and CEO of YMCA of the USA in a press release. “For 160 years, we’ve focused on changing lives for the better. Our commitment to building greater awareness for the important work we do will enable us to expand our efforts and further strengthen communities across the country.”
Jim Joseph, President and Partner of New York-based Lippe Taylor Brand Communications said he applauds the Y. “Funny because just a few weeks ago social media outlets, and even my blog, were all a twitter over Chevrolet supposedly not wanting to use the name ‘Chevy’ anymore. And here the YMCA is embracing its nickname, and attempting to freshen its positioning and its look as a result. I think it’s smart, honestly,” he said.
“The Y should use this moment of significant change – in their strategy as well as their identity – to leverage the great brand recognition they have already and set perceptions on a new course,” says Eric Norman, a strategist with design and brand firm Sametz Blackstone Associates. “If they make the right investments and act as thoughtful brand stewards, the Y and its affiliates won’t lose brand equity, they will build on it.”
A two-year study conducted by Siegel+Gale, a global strategic branding firm, found that while most people know what the Y is, they don’t know exactly what the Y does. This was a constant challenge in managing communications during my tenure at the Y in Milwaukee; we focused many communication efforts on educating various audiences about the breadth and depth of the Y’s impact in the community. The new Y branding strategy will focus on three key areas where the Y makes a difference:
- Youth Development: Nurturing the potential of every child and teen
- Healthy Living: Improving the nation’s health and well-being
- Social Responsibility: Giving back and providing support to our neighbors
As part of a five year plan to completely rebrand the organization, the fresh brand strategy also introduced a new organizational logo. According to a Business Week survey in 2006, the existing black and red Y logo was among the most recognized in the world – yet despite nearly universal awareness of the Y as an organization, Siegel+Gale found that few people understand the breadth and depth of its impact in the community.
Dr. Rolf Wulfsberg, who led the research team for the YMCA project, is the Global Director of Quantitative Research at Siegel+Gale. In an email interview he said “we were acutely aware of the recognition factor of the Y logo. At the same time, our research indicated that the overwhelming association of what the Y is and does was vastly different from what the Y really is and does. The organization needed a way to signal to the public that they’re not just a provider of swimming and fitness, but the leading nonprofit committed to strengthening community through youth development, healthy living and social responsibility. A logo change—particularly to a logo so well recognized—is one way to challenge misperceptions and get the public to reexamine the benefits of the Y.”
The Y’s former logo had been in place since 1967 and was the organization’s sixth since its inception. A YMCA press release said “the refreshed logo, with its multiple color options and new, contemporary look, better reflects the vibrancy of the Y and the diversity of the communities it serves. The new logo’s bold, active and welcoming shape symbolizes the Y’s commitment to personal and social progress.”
“The redesign of the YMCA logo seems to be a very successful evolution to me. It’s vibrant, inviting, bold and youthful – all elements I’m assuming “the Y” needed to reinvent themselves in 2010,” said Jeff Fisher, Engineer of Creative Identity for the Portland-based firm Jeff Fisher LogoMotives and author of Identity Crisis!: 50 redesigns that transformed stale identities into successful brands. “I really like the flexibility of the new color palette for the identity. With the ability to use a variety of colors on the design, the identity will avoid getting ‘stuck’ within the color trends of a particular time period,” he said.
Michael Buckingham of Michigan-based Holy Cow Creative says of the new Y logo “I like that it shows progression, has a fresh feel but retains some of the character of the original logo. I think they did a nice job- not groundbreaking, but nice.”
“The new logo is okay; the only problem with their updating is they made it too trendy. The Web 2.0 style has been here for a while and will likely pass,” said Jenny Leonard, Art Director at Razviti Creative in Houston.
Kelley Briggs, Executive Creative Director at DesignWorks NY says the new Y logo “hits the mark with its audience – pun intended. It has a vibrancy and action to it that moves the organization into this (healthier) century… hopefully now they will soon sunset that teeny tiny YMCA along the side- it won’t be needed for long.”
Changing the logo was not done without rigor and diligence, says Dr. Rolf Wulfsberg. “A lot of time and effort went into developing just the right symbol, and extensive testing of the new logo (and other alternatives) took place before the new design was adopted. The test results were remarkable. The new logo far outperformed the current logo on every attribute examined. This is a highly unusual result as people usually assign higher scores to a design they know versus one they have never seen. This was an important finding that added weight to the ultimate decision.”
The coming weeks will undoubtedly see a major local media campaign for community Y’s. The announcement has certainly gained international attention; Ed Pilkington, who writes for the UK’s Guardian, took a humorous approach. He writes “what will thousands of teenagers at coming-of-age parties and barmitzvahs now dance to at the end of the evening, and what becomes of the choreographed hand movements with which they spell out Y-M-C-A in time to the legendary chorus? ‘It’s fun to stay at the Y-Y-Y-Y’ doesn’t quite cut it.”
And speaking of the Village People, they’ve weighed in on the subject too. “We are deeply dismayed by today’s announcement from the YMCA that they feel a name change and a rebranding are in order after 166 years,” their publicist said in an official statement following the announcement. “Some things remain iconic and while we admire the organization for the work they do, we still can’t help but wonder Y.”
In spite of the Village People’s disappointment, this major effort undertaken by the Y is long overdue and I appluad the organization for dusting off the old brand with a new, vibrant voice. I’d like to know what you think: please share your opinions with a comment below.