While sparks fly and edges meet, Vassar’s rebrand doesn’t meet expectations

When you think of sparks flying, one of three things will most likely come to mind. Your brain might automatically revert back to the summer of 2011 when Taylor Swift released her music video for “Sparks Fly.” You may imagine a spray of fiery specks bouncing off a welder’s mask. Or perhaps you picture the cheesy meet-cute from your favorite romantic movie. Something that doesn’t immediately come to mind? A highly selective coeducational liberal arts college nestled in the scenic Hudson Valley.

Positing that the most exceptional discoveries, whether in medicine, in the arts or somewhere in between, occur only by digging deep and pushing boundaries, Vassar may be defined in future campaign messaging by a three-worded, somewhat muddled and controversial phrase: “Where sparks fly.” These words are only one part of a set of comprehensive guidelines for a new branding concept for Vassar. Sophie Wood ’23 said of the phrase, “It sounds a bit romantic, like it should be the slogan for some Disney romance ride instead.” 

Whether on Noyes Circle or at a comically angular table in the Deece, students all over Vassar’s campus continuously learn, engage and test boundaries. These are indeed the places where ideas come to life and viewpoints coalesce. In these spaces, by some stretch of the imagination, sparks truly do fly, coating our vast Poughkeepsie campus in a wonderful inspiring luminescent glow. In the mind of Laurine Kim ’24, the phrase is a fitting way to describe Vassar: “It is exactly what I visualize Vassar will be like, a completely new place for me to learn, to change and to grow.” Madi Donat ’23 expressed a similar sentiment. “I definitely understand the choice of words,” Donat said. “It’s a very modern way of celebrating something that Vassar prides itself on, which is providing the resources and encouragement to allow students to not only pursue whatever they choose in whatever way they see fit, but also use other knowledge from a liberal arts education to realize their potential as learners and as ‘movers and shakers,’ as it were.” Her take on the new rebranding is that Vassar hopes to modernize its “old school” image and increase contemporary appeal. She noted that despite Vassar’s renowned progressivism, the school seems to have trouble shaking the elitism often associated with being an established, highly ranked college.

While this phrase intended to encapsulate what it means to be a Brewer, someone willing to rip down barriers and fearlessly dive into the unknown, it unfortunately falls short. In addition to its lack of relevance to the Vassar community, the oddly romantic sentiment coupled with the random imagery of sparks leaves many thrown off and confused. Liv Fraiser ’24 doesn’t place too much of an emphasis on branding in general, remarking, “I do wish…that it had more relevance. I don’t see how it represents the values of the school.” Josephine Man ’24, after acknowledging the phrase’s intention, found it to be “a little corny” and “romanticized.”  Incoming first-year William Sorge expressed his neutrality: “Whatever slogan or motto the Vassar community feels sums them up best is a good one.”

So what truly sums up Vassar? Its rich history? Lively campus? Professors’ distinct and eccentric teaching style? While each of these factors plays a part in defining Vassar College, one component rises above all others, like a shooting star in a sky full of brilliant constellations: the character of its students. To highlight this component and emphasize their extraordinary student body, the administration began searching for ways to reinvent their brand last spring. They further sought to wholly answer the question, “What defines Vassar?”

In its search for a fitting response, Vassar hired 160over90, a “Full-Service Creative Agency,” to clearly define and modernize the college’s brand. This company, whose latest works feature a hotel loyalty program and a zombie apocalypse show’s social media, as well as several other college rebrands, was entrusted to put together guidelines for Vassar’s new advertising approach. Vassar’s old motto, “Purity and Wisdom,” was not the only thing to be thrown away. Initially rose pink and gray (signifying the dawning of women’s education shattering the bleak and gray years prior to this milestone), the current official school colors of burgundy and gray are to be replaced with Vassar Burgundy and Vassar Dark Burgundy. Francesca Elba ’24 feels that the old school colors served better. “I feel like different shades of burgundy would make the logo blend in whereas contrasting colors would make it pop and stand out,” Elba commented. Changing one school color to simply put a darker shade of the other not only lacks purpose, but any sort of tie to the student body or the new brand. 

The new advertising aims to unite students of all interests and backgrounds. However, the administration sees a common attribute pumping through the veins of every student, faculty member and alum: passion. This universal passion drives students to search for something greater, whether that means figuring out why humans can dream or what it means to be alive. Therefore, in conjunction with Vassar’s rebranding approach, a series of phrases were developed to adequately depict the kind of passion kindled on campus. According to Vassar Brand Guidelines Version 1.0, our college will henceforth be promoted as a place where “perspectives cross,” “ideas collide,” “passions intersect,” “minds are changed,” “passion burns bright” and “horizons meet.” Further elaborating on this element, the guidelines state, “This system is meant to create a sense of tension and action and work closely with the accompanying imagery.” Ana Panday ’24 said of these new brand values, “It seems fitting! It makes sense for Vassar to begin adapting a more inclusive and encouraging brand considering that’s the general feeling of the campus.” Panaday continued, “Vassar has always been a pioneer of change, and considering the state of the world, let alone New York, it makes sense that Vassar finds ways to make it clear that we are a strong unit made from unique parts.” 

Another new approach to advertising Vassar, photography, emphasizes the simultaneous individuality and unity among students. In each photo and on every future brochure and pamphlet, Vassar seeks to capture the moments during which sparks fly on campus. The goal is to allow viewers to witness the “exchange of ideas, connections between people, and the experience of living and learning at the college,” according to Vassar Brand Guidelines Version 1.0. To do the one-of-a-kind educational experience justice, these photos strive to speak a thousand words in an eight by ten colored print. Abiding by the lifestyle aesthetic of “candid, authentic and in-the-moment,” photo angles, subjects and lighting aim to highlight Vassar’s collaborative, hands-on approach to learning and active student engagement that converge on, as the guidelines phrased it, the “cultural ‘petri dish,’” that is our campus.

In addition, brand pillars were forged to hold up the central idea that Vassar is “where edges meet.” The four pillars are academic philosophy, environment, community, and outcomes and impact. This idea serves not as an advertising slogan, but as a dynamic phrase meant to encapsulate Vassar’s essence. This phrase, propped up on these pillars, is surrounded by a series of buzzwords—savvy, gutsy and spirited among them—meant to illustrate the Vassar brand. 

Being that the guidelines produced only apply to academic departments, others, such as the Computing and Information Services (CIS), were glossed over and given no instruction on how to adhere to the new brand. Although this overlooked detail may seem miniscule, it represents one of many cracks in the foundation upon which these guidelines were built. It is evident that departments across campus may be just as lost as the students when this rebranding comes to fruition. 

Despite containing all these pillars, buzzwords and phrases, the guidelines provide very little real world application for Vassar’s brand. Where it lacks plans for new stationary headings, a business card style or a thorough upgraded website format, the guidelines come through with a seemingly irrelevant airport billboard design. Despite being 46 pages, the guidelines featured no information on the school’s crest or seal. Additionally, they fail to highlight, or even mention, elements key to a comprehensive college brand, such as a proposed timeline for said changes to take place. 

The athletic division, given a tad more acknowledgement than CIS, was given a plan to slowly implement the new brand into the college’s sports apparel line. Instead of receiving new uniforms to reflect the Vassar’s new brand this upcoming fall season, the athletic department will remain stuck in the past while the rest of the campus propels forward with the changes. Uniforms will stay the same until a need for new ones is demonstrated. Only then will the athletic department begin to shift to the change the rest of the campus has already felt. 

Whether deliberately or through oversight, the new advertisement strategy fails to provide a clear foundation as to what the main focus of change will be. Additionally, no plan was given for when this rebranding will occur or what will be changed first. A lack of collaboration with the student body shines throughout these guidelines, as a number of areas were neglected, while some changes, such as the new color palette and airport billboard design, were simply unnecessary. 

Whether one is studying at Vassar to become the next Vera Rubin, or Lisa Kudrow, or simply the best version of themselves, everyone is encouraged to dig deep and find their passions. However, if you’re looking to see actual sparks flying, look no further than the Barefoot Monkeys’ biannual fire show.

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