Somewhere in this country, there’s a guy who attends an ivy league school on a full ride scholarship. He captains the water polo team, leads his peer group in every respect, and spends his spare time engaged in community service. He’s got great teeth. He calls his grandparents every weekend, and is already saving for retirement. His name is Barrett or Branch or Hunter, or some other aggressive Type A name (his parents knew he was destined for greatness, afterall). All jokes aside, Branch (or Dirk?) is a great guy, and he’s going to leave the world a better place.
Somewhere else in this country, is Tom. He wakes up around 11am. He puts on the same pants he wore yesterday, before rummaging through the fridge to procure a questionable brunch from a carton of leftover Chinese food. What else could a 21 year old guy need? Sure, he missed his first class, but it’s a waste of time anyway (when will anyone ever need to understand economics? [three crying laughter emojis]) He picks hunks of General Tso’s out of his teeth and fires up his Xbox. Tom will likely graduate, someday. It may take a while, but eventually he’ll land a job at a friend’s dad’s company. Or something. It’s whatever. But that’s 5 or 8 years off; for now, let’s get weird.
Despite the differences between
Birch Branch Branson Barrett and Tom, they share one big thing in common when it comes to their college experience; they’re both members of a fraternity.
The nature of a fraternity experience is very much dependent on what you want to get out of it. You can join social fraternities, professional fraternities, honors fraternities, service fraternities, etc. All with different programming, criteria and differing outcomes for respective members.
No matter which organization a student decides to join, they’re all still dealing with the same set of tough questions:
1. Are fraternities still relevant?
In a world of social media, the mercurial “Gig Economy,” and being able to access any piece of information known to man on a small, magical rectangle in your pocket, do you need to join a club in order to make it through college?
2. How can a fraternity provide real tangible value?
Sure, you can drink lots of cheap beer, listen to terrible music and strut about town, bolstering your position in the social pecking order; But what does joining a fraternity actually give you? Is the experience little more than a bulletpoint on a resumé, or are there further opportunities to develop skills and experiences that you wouldn’t expect at first blush?
Let’s get this all out of the way now; Fraternities across the country deal with very real issues like alcoholism, sexual assault, hazing, drug abuse, vandalism, and myriad other terrible blights. Such problems are so pervasive that they’re driving a broad push to, in some cases, remove fraternities entirely from college campuses.
With all these issues on the table, why would someone join a fraternity in 2017?
For several years now, Phi Sigma Kappa (“Phi Sig”) has been facing these issues head on. They’ve put new leadership in place and have implemented programs that directly educate young men about the perils of drug and alcohol abuse, and how to excel in and out of school. They’ve been doing this quietly for years, and after gaining enough momentum on the programming side of the house, decided it was time to revamp their century-old brand identity to court the interest of high school graduates and incoming college students of 2017.
Phi Sigma Kappa is one of the oldest social fraternities in the country (founded in 1873). Headquartered in Indianapolis, IN, they’ve got around 80 chapters across the country and count over 100,000 members.
When we kicked off the Phi Sig rebranding project, we sat down with many of these members to see what they felt made Phi Sig different from every other fraternity out there. Why would a 19 year old guy join this organization over another? We had 1 on 1 conversations with senior leadership, in-house marketing folks, new members, old members (including folks who have been members for over 50 years), committee members, and volunteers.
A quick aside, because it bears mentioning: In the course of our work we have found that intimate, 1-on-1 meetings are crucial to the branding process. We often receive more useful information when we speak to someone directly. In a group setting, the dynamic between participants can throw off the conversation. Maybe there’s a type A person who dominates the conversation (probably named Branch or Slater). Maybe there’s someone who is new to the organization, and isn’t yet confident in voicing their opinion in front of others. Maybe some people in the group just don’t like each other. We’ve seen this sort of chicanery for years, and it always proves to be the most complicated aspect of working with large organizations. One-on-one interviews side-step problems like these.
Back to Phi Sig: Through the course of this work, our goal was to boil 144 year’s of brand equity down to the most clear, compelling idea. If someone remembered one thing about Phi Sig, what would it be? Despite CODO’s ‘Tom-like’ appearance and gruff demeanor, we use whimsical words like “brand essence” when describing these ideas (it keeps people on their toes). We strive to pare back brand messaging to the most essential and compelling ideas. Once we have a clear direction of what makes Phi Sig unique, we can use that core essence to inform everything from the brand identity, copywriting, advertising, and beyond.
We ultimately framed three core brand essences. Here are some snippets from our brand strategy presentation:
“When you join Phi Sigma Kappa, you’re immediately held accountable for your actions. You have to work with a diverse group of people to build consensus, manage conflict, and communicate effectively. Your time as an undergrad in Phi Sig is an opportunity to develop character, fail fast, and gain the skills you need to be a leader in all aspects of your life. “
Your Second Family
“As a member of Phi Sigma Kappa, you’ll forge lifelong bonds with like-minded brothers. These men will shape you, and you them, and push you to become the best version of yourself. Through good times and bad, they are your second family.”
Bigger Than You
“There’s heritage here—a tremendous story (140+ years old / Over 100,000 members across the country / 80 chapters). When you join Phi Sigma Kappa, you’re adding to this story. This is bigger than you—it’s about being the best man you can be, treating others with respect, forging lifelong relationships with like-minded brothers, and leaving the world a better place than you found it.”
After sharing these ideas with Phi Sig to gain feedback and further clarification, we determined that ‘Your Second Family’ (i.e. the notion of brotherhood and fellowship), while an intrinsic part of the fraternity experience, isn’t unique enough for Phi Sig to own exclusively.
‘Leadership Laboratory’ has some great potential because it speaks directly to the idea of the value and ROI that can come from joining the fraternity. This direction served as a great summation of the programming and structural changes that Phi Sig has made to offer more to members. This is a key factor, as incoming students are more selective and analytical than ever when it comes to mapping out their future.
‘Bigger Than You’ was initially well-received. What does masculinity, stewardship and community engagement look like in 2017 (we even considered the essence title, “Contemporary Masculinity”)? At the same time, we collectively worried that it was a bit too dramatic. Would an internet-raised, cynical college student be moved by overly romanticized, syrupy ad agency copywriting? Probably not.
An animated group discussion ensued and we ended up fusing ‘Second Family’ and ‘Leadership Laboratory’ into a fourth and final idea. We then moved forward to explore how the newly-formed “Family of Leaders” brand essence could manifest visually.
Brand Identity Option 1
This direction was heavily informed by existing brand assets and the overall reach of Phi Sig. It was positioned to be inline with a prestigious 144 year old organization.
Brand Identity Option 2
The goal here was to take recognizable visual elements associated with Phi Sig and present them in a fresh, relevant, digital-friendly light.
Brand Identity Option 3
Informed by confidential membership rituals and bylaws (if we discuss them here, we’ll be taken in the night. Or sued. Either way, not a great look.) Colloquially, these are called the “Three T’s” or the “Tumbling T’s.”
At this point, Phi Sig decided that the third direction perfectly hit everything they had been working toward internally. By ditching the ubiquitous Greek Letters and instead focusing on important rituals and rules (some of their most ownable assets), this spoke to current and potential members equally well.
The brand identity system was fleshed out and finalized to include an overarching fraternity identity, Phi Sigma Kappa Foundation identity, a suite of secondary marks, typography, and color palette.
Subsequently, we redesigned their membership publication, ‘The Signet,’ to have more visual punch and be more cost effective to produce. We also designed a suite of popular merchandise, brand guidelines, a set of iStickers available on the iOS store, social media templates, and a sweeping website overhaul.
Their website itself became a core piece of the brand launch. By cleaning up their information architecture (and completely updating their site map), we streamlined the website for Phi Sig’s various audiences. We pulled the Phi Sigma Kappa Foundation closer to the Fraternity itself and otherwise, created a fully-responsive website that their team can update whenever needed.
And finally, we got to work with Bayonet Media to write and produce a powerful brand anthem to support the brand launch at their annual conference in Orlando.
Whenever we wrap a project, we take some time to reflect on what went right and what went wrong to find ways we can improve our work, communication, and our process. Rebranding Phi Sigma Kappa gave us several major takeaways.
1. Gaining complete consensus amongst a large group is impossible.
I know I should be more inspirational, but facts are facts. It’s hard to get 8 people to agree completely on something, let alone dozens of stakeholders, many of whom have been involved with an organization for 30+ years. The easy route is to lay down and let the group take over. Design by committee. Sure, the process will be “easier” because you don’t have to have hard conversations where you challenge the client, but the work will be at best, bland. At worst, it will be complete shit. This serves neither you nor the client.
While gaining complete consensus is impossible, gaining a majority consensus is attainable. We were able to do that with Phi Sig and are happy with the results.
2. Brand rollouts / launches / announcements are important for large organizations.
It’s not uncommon for a client to throw their new logo up on social media before we’ve even finalized it. On one hand, we’re excited that they’re excited about the work, naturally, but you need to be more measured in how you introduce (or reintroduce) yourself.
With Phi Sig, we had to manage internal adoption throughout 80 chapters across the country, ensuring chapter leaders had the visual resources they need to implement the branding in a way that would be consistent with the parent brand, all while giving them enough room to customize to their own liking (school colors, mascots, states, etc.) Quick note: bastardizing a beautiful new brand identity is going to happen whether we precious designers like it or not, so we designed the identity and developed member materials to hedge against this as much as we can.
3. Lipstick, Pigs, and Rebranding
We see a lot of misuses of the term “rebranding.” It’s thrown around without much thought; “We redesigned our website. Share if you like our rebrand!”
A true rebranding signifies a new era for your company. Full stop. You have to take stock of everything you’ve done up to now, all the great stuff (and the missteps)—your brand equity—that got you where you are today and balance that with where you want to take your company. So yes, rebranding is a visual process. But this visual retooling denotes deep internal change.
Phi Sigma Kappa did everything right in this case. By taking a hard look at the problems their organization is facing, striving to understand how they can better serve their members, and continue to be a relevant force when many other fraternities soon may not be, they began their rebranding process years before they called CODO.