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Brands, Audits, FOIAs, Lady Volunteers, and You

Brands rule everything around me. (Part 1 of a series.)

Is this consistent use of proper branding associated with Tennessee? Has Smokey given his all for One Tennessee today? There are ....consequences.
Is this consistent use of proper branding associated with Tennessee? Has Smokey given his all for One Tennessee today? There are ....consequences.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

So we're going to do that thing where we talk about brands. Tennessee's athletic department has somewhat quietly decided to do away with the Lady Volunteers name (and brand) in all sports except women's basketball. Sports Illustrated has a pretty decent overview of the issues and sides, and a lot of that is what you'd expect. I'd recommend reading the SI piece if you haven't yet (or if you're playing catch-up), but assuming you've read the piece, here's the quote I'm focusing on for now:

According to a UT statement, the [Nike and university] audits recommended "the consolidation of logos and word marks in order for better branding consistency, with the Power T serving as the primary mark for campus and athletics."

Deadspin picked up on this story a few weeks back, doing Deadspin-y things like trying to get correspondence between Tennessee staff and Nike via FOIA request. Honestly, I'm glad they did this, as I haven't seen a ton of public discussion on the name change beyond Bring Back the Lady Vols.

Regardless, let's stick to what Deadspin did for now. Following the FOIA inundation, Tennessee administration chose to interpret a request for emails, letters, memos, proposals, and text messages (all reasonable if any of this correspondence was conducted on university-provided equipment, since they're a public university and all) with a copy of the draft Nike audit and only the audit.

So: let's assume everyone inside the front office thought this actually was what the FOIA request entailed, which means offering the administration the benefit of the doubt for now. In theory, we should be able to reconstruct the recommendation in that quote above pretty easily, right?

Unfortunately, it's not quite that easy. (You can look through the audit response yourself via that last link.) What you can learn is this:

  • This is an electronic copy of a presentation booklet put together by Nike staff. That in turns means there's a verbal component of this we're missing right off the bat, but FOIA requests reasonably wouldn't be expected to include fully recorded presentations. Again: let's assume all Tennessee was after was a draft response from Nike and this was the sole paper deliverable.
  • This was submitted on April 24th, 2014; the branding announcement was in November. In turn, this would mean Tennessee admin either sat on this report for seven months or handled the rest of the process internally with no further input from Nike. Strictly speaking, this is possible and with a pretty narrow FOIA interpretation this could make sense. Personally, I'm not sure why you change apparel providers and only get one branding document, but I'm not part of the Tennessee administration. They didn't ask me.
  • Skipping ahead to page 9, we find the following observation: "The continued use of Lady Volunteers further segments an athletic institution that is striving to be united as ‘One Tennessee'." The phrase "One Tennessee' has been a fairly common administration refrain in most of their public disclosures lately and is found twice in here: once on page 9 and as the sole contents of page 10. Personal presentation note: if this was a huge Nike driver, I would've come back to it in writing at some point. They might've verbally reiterated it a few times, but we don't know.
  • While we're on page 9: most of the other recommendations appear to be very literally brand-specific (color, word marks, mascots, inconsistent use of Tennessee identification). The Lady Volunteers observation just kind of appears jammed in there. From what I understand, that may just be designers writing a presentation booklet. Let's be optimistic and assume this wasn't heavily copy-edited before it got to Knoxville.
  • There are recommendations in here! Do any of them mention doing away with the Lady Volunteers brand in other sports? Turns out: no, they don't, at least not in print. (Page 30, if you're following along.) There are references to developing a comprehensive brand identity (and brand guidelines), which I guess I'd understand. However, there's nothing either here or in the Goals (page 29) that addresses consolidation—feel free to search "consolidation".
  • So: could there have been a verbal recommendation to consolidate the Lady Volunteers brand from Nike? Sure, and if it was verbal only we'd never know about it if this was the only document Nike provided. If the recommendation was written at any point, then either Nike never provided it to Tennessee or Tennessee somehow misread the FOIA request.
  • There's some actually-neat stuff in here which I suspected but couldn't prove—i.e., most of the women's sports also feature light blue in their uniforms, not all Tennessee orange is created equally—and improving consistency there completely makes sense. If you'd be so inclined, there is consistency in the Lady Volunteers logo, especially with the use of light blue as part of the Lady Volunteers programs.
  • That being said, the Lady Volunteers consistency is different than the Power T consistency, although you can probably piece together a dual "One Tennessee" brand with both logos if you were inclined. Obviously, if you're looking for single-brand consistency and not willing to deal with a third color, the Power T would seem to be your option here. Playing that out, I'd feel pretty confident we won't see a return of any gray-themed Tennessee football uniforms, since that would be inconsistent color treatment.

So: if you assume a rather strict set of conditions, there's a chance Tennessee fully responded to the FOIA request. I don't particularly fault Nike here: they were paid to produce a branding audit, and if they're smart their recommendations would at least in part reflect the wishes of Tennessee administration; you've got to get paid, after all. However, I have some questions:

  • When did the transition from this draft report to large-scale consolidation of the Tennessee brand occur? I didn't see the recommendation in writing from Nike in this. So: where is that claim? Was it verbal only, offered at the time of this presentation or later on?
  • If this indeed was the only document that Nike submitted, why did Tennessee sit on it for seven months? Getting this report in April right before summer gives you a perfect opportunity to announce this consolidation, giving you a year to tout "One Tennessee". Dumping the announcement deep in football season buries the news—the equivalent of the 4:45 PM Friday news dump—and you'd think if this is truly important they'd be out in front on it. So: why wait? Was that timing intentional?
  • I would think that a rebrand is a fairly complex project. How is Tennessee planning on implementing something as complex as a rebrand via phone calls and in-person conversations? I salute them if you can actually do this, by the way: I can't put out a six-page report for Mysterious Day Job without a bunch of emails, so ...yeah, let me know.
  • It seems a little unlikely to me this was the only document that would fit FOIA requirements. Why were more documents not provided? This isn't necessarily assuming there was a huge conspiracy theory, but more something that I find functionally very hard to do with one document.

Right now, I'm struggling to understand how Dave Hart and Jimmy Cheek went from this draft audit to consolidation of the Lady Volunteers under the Power T as I can't easily connect the dots. In theory, additional documentation might help. In theory, understanding department history might help. In theory, evaluation of administration culture might help. (Will already did some of this.)

Maybe I'm missing something. I'll keep on it, though.