How The United Negro College Fund Is Revitalizing Its Brand (Case Study)

The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) has been on my mind lately, as the home of one of the world’s most effective taglines (A mind is a terrible thing to waste).

So UNCF’s announcement of its rebranding got my attention, particularly when I saw it covered in The New York Times. Of course, as a woman who does a lot of nonprofit branding, I was intrigued by the brand revision itself, but also by the unusual way UNCF introduced it (more to follow):


UNCF, the country’s largest private minority education assistance program recently re-focused on closing what President and CEO Dr. Michael Lomax calls, “the education attainment gap.”

With this clearer direction in hand – brought to life in its scholarships, advocacy for minority education and 39 historically-black members colleges – UNCF realized it had to modernize its look and feel to engage the younger generations it needs to support it in the long run. This according to Dr. Lomax, who hosted the brand introduction in this webcast from Spelman College.

Extensive audience research showed that although the tagline generated recognition, as did the organization name, people didn’t connect the two. In addition, most people did not connect UNCF with its 39 member colleges. And finally, UNCF is facing significant competition for donors.

“At a time when UNCF needed to take a step forward to attract new donors, reinforce its relevance and appeal to a broader base of public support, it was bootstrapped by its brand,” said Dr. Lomax.


In response, UNCF’s branding team (this was a four-year, endeavor) set to crafting a brand that encompassed the reliable, strong focused history of UNCF, while “encouraging audiences to take a new look at the organization, and see what its doing today to support our member schools, provide scholarships and advocate for the importance of minority education.”

Here’s what the new UNCF brand includes:

  • Redesigned torch – Slight revision of the UNCF signature icon, the torch, modernizing the graphic to be “forward looking.”
  • Adding color to the logotype, actually three vibrant colors that with the revised torch graphic “represent the momentum and acceleration of a forward looking organization.”
  • Using UNCF instead of the full org name, a change which the org sees, according to Dr. Michael Lomax, UNCF president and cEO, as “clean, fresh, compact and to the point.”
  • Keeping the tagline front and center, making it in effect the centerpiece of the new UNCF brand, for an overall feel that is “bold, forward looking and less wordy,” according to Joye Griffin, UNCF press secretary.

UNCF rolled out the brand in a major way, with the webcast, mini site and a major media campaign. Most of these elements focused on the brand elements themselves, and the brand development process – an unsual focus.

In addition, UNCF is “distributing information via email to donors, board members and PR directors of member colleges,” says Joye Griffin, UNCF press secretary. “We use a variety of channels to better communicate who we are and what we are doing – events, direct mail, public service campaign through our partnership with the Ad Council – to our 300,000 individual donors and people we believe could become our donors. This past weekend, our new brand debuted in our annual show An Evening Of Stars® Tribute to Smokey Robinson.”

In addition, a small group of employees were a part of a “Brand Activation Team”, helping to lead the brand launch initiatives to support and communicate with their respective constituents, according to Griffin.

“We conducted an internal brand launch in mid-December to inform employees of the details of the roll-out and introduce them to the new brand and train them on usage guidelines.”

You can find more detail on the new UNCF brand, and how it was developed, at the brand mini-site.


What’s working

Here is what I think is great about the new UNCF brand:

  • The brand leverages the best from UNCF’s past (tagline, torch), and uses it as a springboard to a vital role in the present – UNCF builds on the organization’s stellar heritage, while emphasizing its evolutionary role as what Dr. Lomax deems a “leading voice for minority education.”
  • Builds on findings of comprehensive research, keeping the tagline front and center while 86-ing other components in favor of those more relevant to priority audiences – current scholarship students and others 40 and younger.
  • UNCF’s emphasis of the tagine, making it an integral part of the identity, rather than a footnote, is a significant improvement.
  • Integrates more vibrant graphics and colors to convey that UNCF is forward looking,current and innovative, rather than stuck in the past. As Dr. Lomax so aptly put it, “the world has changed, and UNCF has changed with it.”
  • Conveys an accurate brand promise, that UNCF is the core advocate for minority education.

And what’s great about the brand rollout:

  • Engages all channels in introducing the brand
  • Trains staff so they can serve as brand ambassadors

What’s not working

Here are some of the quirks of the new UNCF brand:

  • It remains unclear what happens to the full/old name. “United Negro College Fund will always be the legal, corporate name for UNCF and must be used in a range of legal instances. But we will transition from using the full UNCF-the United Negro College Fund, to just using the initials UNCF for public communications, connecting the initials directly with our iconic motto, ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste®'” says Griffin.
  • In the webcast, Lomax affirms that it remains the organization’s name, but that UNCF will be what’s used. Elsewhere, there’s no mention of the full name. Very confusing.
  • There’s no acknowledgement of what seems to be UNCF’s support of minority education for minorities beyond African-Americans. As a result, audiences may be suspicious, feeling that the organization isn’t being straightforward with them.
  • Acronyms are generally dead weight. There’s no reason UNCF will be an exception.

The heritage could have been used more effectively to bridge to a potent new name.

And of the brand rollout:

  • Very, very strange. The webcast and mini-site focus on the process to the new brand. This approach is more like a business school mini-course in branding, than an organizational rollout.It’s technical rather than strategic, far less exciting than it could be, and bound to fail in getting UNCF stakeholders excited.
  • Better to lead with a new or reinvigorated program or even strategic plan, and weave the new brand into that more concrete conent. Otherwise, it remains far too abstract. As always, doing means much more than saying.

Definitely a unique approach, UNCF. What do you think?

Post your take as a comment in the box below.