Inside the Fighting Illini Nike Identity Launch
May 7, 2014
By now, many Fighting Illini fans have seen the new Nike marks and uniforms for Illinois athletics, either online or in person. The new look is fresh, but is built on tradition. The modern take that was created is classic, memorable and totally unique to Illinois. Here's a look at how that was accomplished.
"For us it was several reasons," Marty Kaufmann, Illinois' assistant director of athletics, said of the rebrand. "One was from a consistency standpoint. If you look at a lot of logos, uniforms, marketing, shirts student-athletes wear, there wasn't a ton of consistency with the orange and blue colors, the 'Block I' or the 'Block I' with Illinois through it. Now it's just about being consistent and being able to identify not only here, but across the country over time, that this is Illinois.
"I think with that, our coaches tell us from a recruiting standpoint that having an updated look, a more consistent look, is something student-athletes are going to be excited about. That's certainly a factor. I think as we got into it, it was about being able to tell a story. We've had the block 'I' and the logos, but I don't know if there has been any true research or decision making as to why we had them. Now we have that story behind it."
"At Illinois, nothing had been done to this magnitude from a branding standpoint in at least 20 years, maybe ever," Kaufmann said. "The last time the athletic department took a look at its design was in the mid-1990s with the Block I with the Illinois slant through it, and that was just the designers and marketers. This time, it was a process where Nike came to campus a couple times to meet with student-athletes, coaches, DIA staff (graphic design, equipment, marketing and communications), campus administration and, of course, director of athletics Mike Thomas. Everyone had input."
One of the best moments came in Nike's second trip to campus. The athletic department arranged for a meeting between Nike, including senior graphic designer Clint Shaner, who has worked with Illinois for a number of years, and Winston Solburg, a university archivist. Solburg is in his 90s and is the unofficial historian for part of campus. The team met for two hours, scouring the UI archives in the basement of the Main Library on campus. They researched everything from the history of colors, the sensitive issues of Chief Illiniwek and how that created a void in the brand, the history of the athletic department, the development of Memorial Stadium, Red Grange and much more.
"I think Clint would tell you they didn't just look, they dove into a bunch of stuff," Kaufmann said. "They went to Chicago, to Springfield, and talked about the history of Abraham Lincoln. None of that is too evident in the finished product, but it helps show the depth of what they studied about our University and athletic department."
Even though it was an athletic rebrand, others on campus also had a hand in the process. When Nike made its first trip to campus in February 2013, they spent time with chancellor Phyllis Wise and the university's public relations team. While the new marks would officially be for the Fighting Illini sports teams, to the public they can also represent the University of Illinois as a whole, so that had to be taken into consideration.
The Nike identity group started the process with the mindset of presenting outside ideas that might make the Illinois team feel uncomfortable. Illinois' job was to educate Nike about the history of the university and the athletic department. In the end, Illinois would make the final decisions on the new marks and uniforms.
"It created a different kind of creative challenge for us," said Todd Van Horne, Nike vice president and creative director, about the lack of a mascot at Illinois. "I think, ultimately, it was a better final expression because we didn't focus on the mascot and the different attributes of it. Instead, it was about the spirit of the Fighting Illini and what that means, the historic columns, the veterans, those that fought and served for our nation. We took those as very, very strong inspiration points. That was powerful for us."
Some of the main research parts were focus groups made up of select student-athletes and coaches. About 15 student-athletes, mainly graduating seniors, and all head coaches had the opportunity to give their input about what being a Fighting Illini means to them. The brand attributes that came out of the focus groups were: hard working, loyalty, family and tradition.
"Nike took campus tours, looked into our archives, researched our history and talked to several focus groups," Kaufmann said. "They took all of that information and came up with common themes, attributes and important points before they even started designing logos and uniforms."
The Big Reveal
"I think the response has been very positive," Thomas said after the unveiling. "When you saw the look on the student-athletes face's when they saw their new uniforms and new marks for the first time, that right there tells you it was the right thing to do. It makes them feel good about walking out and representing this great institution."
"I just think it's awesome," senior football player Matt LaCosse, one of the uniform models, said. "It's something you can brag to your buddies back home. It's always nice to look good on the field, because when you look good, you feel good, you play good. It exceeded my expectations. When we first saw them, we were in awe."
"It's pretty unique with the new designs on the sides," junior basketball player and uniform model Tracy Abrams said. "It feels good, so hopefully we can make some stuff happen in these. They exceeded my expectations. All the uniforms look nice, so it doesn't matter which one we wear on a game day."
The colors of orange and blue weren't going anywhere, but they were tweaked slightly. As for the primary logo, the Block I was modified to a more modern, sleek look. It might be drastically different to some, while other may hardly notice the differences.
"The new block 'I' is classic and traditional, but it's updated with some modern curves," Kaufmann said of the new primary logo. "We have a storied tradition, we are a land-grant institution, but our history is different than any other school. Tweaking the block 'I' and keeping orange and blue as our colors, that's a nod to our history, but you feel the modern aspect of it. You can update things and make it modern, like adding accent colors, but still stay true to who you really are. I think the whole portfolio shows that."
In addition to the new look, the uniforms will be made of Nike's latest lightweight materials, tailored for optimal efficiency of movement and maximum breathability.
"I had a chance to hold Deron Williams' 2005 jersey the other day," Illinois head basketball coach John Groce said. "And the relative comparison between the two, in terms of the fabric and how light they are is like light-years between where it was in '05. That was only nine years ago, so it's pretty neat what Nike has done."
V is for Victory
The feedback from student-athletes, alumni and fans following the unveiling was overwhelmingly positive. Almost unanimously, one of the favorite aspects of the new designs was the addition of a secondary logo to complement the traditional block 'I'. The Victory Badge, or Victory Shield as some call it, is a hit with Illini nation.
"The initial secondary logo options Nike presented didn't really look anything like what we ended up with, but had a similar background story," Kaufmann said. "We thought the first versions were too specific to football, so we went back and asked them, 'We like the feel, we like the concept, but can you find something that can resonate with all of our 19 sports?' They came back with the Victory Badge, something that is subtlely Fighting Illini and has a background story with it. We loved it."
A lot of the updated identity is based on the history of Fighting Illini, the soldiers of World War I and how the teams fought on the field back in the 1920s. The columns of Memorial Stadium are truly unique in college football. Each one is dedicated to Illinois veterans that died in WWI. When Nike learned the history behind the columns, combined with how much of a force Red Grange was to college football in the early 20th century, they came up with the Victory Badge. It incorporates a military style theme (like the Badge of Honor), the columns, Grange's original jersey design in the 1920s and the look of a modern superhero. In the last decade, there has been such a resurgence of superheroes that it was only natural to modernize the look and put Grange in the superhero category.
"Obviously, when you look at the tradition of Illinois," Groce said, "the way that Nike studied it, the V for victory that's a part of the shield, the columns that represent Memorial Stadium, the fact that this is a blue-collar community and the values of our program, passion and loyalty. I think the shield is very, very appropriate. I think it's very creative on their part."
"Everyone has gravitated to the badge," Kaufmann said. "The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Any time you put out something new, you aren't sure how it's going to turn out. We felt like we maintained our tradition and our roots, but also is a little more modern and universal. It's updated, it's bold and it's strong."
Looking to the Future
Fans have now had a chance to see the new marks, some of the uniforms and new merchandise, but the overall impact of the rebranding will be a gradual process. There are new branding guidelines and a much more comprehensive style guide for how the new Fighting Illini wordmark and the updated logos should and shouldn't be used. There are countless places on campus where updates need to be made with the new marks: game venues, practice facilities, premium seating areas, signage, brochures, websites, media guides, television graphics, etc. Many changes are already taking place, but not everything can be updated right away, meaning there will be some lag time before everything across campus has the new look.
What changes will be visible next season? The football and men's basketball uniforms that were unveiled April 16 are the finished products. The women's basketball uniform could have a minor change and likely won't be ready until midseason, while the uniforms for volleyball, soccer and baseball could still change before they're used on the field or court in 2014-15. The rest of the sports update every two to three years, so whenever they are due for an update, fans will see their new looks.
Many fields and courts will have new looks next season. The middle of Zuppke Field at Memorial Stadium will not change for now, due to cost concerns, but the end zones will be updated. Plans are in place to have a new mark on the back of the Memorial Stadium scoreboard, which overlooks Kirby Avenue, one of Champaign's main thoroughfares. Huff Hall and State Farm Center will have new marks on the courts, including the updated Block I and the Victory Badge in some areas. The athletic department is working to see how it can incorporate the Victory Badge in athletics locations on campus.
Those interested in filling their closets with a whole new orange and blue wardrobe will have plenty of options to choose from through Nike, the official Fighting Illini Fan Store and many retailers around the nation that carry officially licensed merchandise. The Victory Badge is a Nike exclusive for the first two years, meaning you won't be able to purchase non-Nike gear with the badge. A limited selection of new Fighting Illini merchandise is already in stores, with more slated to roll out this summer and fall just in time for football season.
And when football season rolls around, what color combination will the Fighting Illini wear when they take the field in the opener against Youngstown State on Aug. 30?
"I think that'll be up to the players, the seniors," head football coach Tim Beckman said. "We always do it that way. We'll make that decision as a family. All I know is we'll look good no matter what the combination is."
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