Two senior officials from Pepperdine University’s Athletic Department and a group of students were asked to identify the department’s primary logo.
The results are mixed.
“I would say ‘P’ with the ‘Waves’ under it is our primary logo,” Director of Development Tim Cullen said, referring to the first logo shown below.
“‘Pepperdine’ with the waves in the back and ‘Pepperdine Waves,’” said Karina Herold, senior associate director of athletics, referring to the second logo. “That’s our primary logo.”
Forty three Pepperdine students were polled with the same query.
The plurality said it was the third one.
The correct emblem is actually the second one, according to the University’s website.
However, ESPN uses the first logo when televising an event featuring a Pepperdine team, and the third logo is arguably the most visible logo on Pepperdine’s Malibu campus, on both athletic facilities and apparel.
How could two major figures and an entire group of students all disagree on the primary logo?
When it comes to Pepperdine Athletics’ branding confusion and associated complications, the logo is only the tip of the iceberg.
Pepperdine’s size, location and funding are all major hurdles that the Athletic department faces in building national brand recognition, Cullen said.
Director of Athletics Steve Potts initiated a rebranding effort when he took his position in January 2011. The sweeping changes included all-new logos, definitive colors and physical branding around campus, Herold said.
Although the department’s branding was improved, the rebrand did not change the university’s unique situation.
“Obviously, from a ticket revenue and a merchandise revenue standpoint, we’re nowhere near any other school,” Cullen said. “We just don’t have the numbers. That’s kind of a reality of what the program is here.”
Pepperdine Athletics is one of the most successful NCAA Division I departments without a football program. In the 2017-2018 Directors’ Cup, a ranking of schools based on the performance of all their sports programs, Pepperdine finished third of all non-football schools and No. 89 overall.
This success comes from sports like volleyball, tennis, golf and water polo — sports that do not draw much national attention.
“Beach Volleyball National Championships are on ESPN; we were on ESPN multiple times for Women’s Volleyball; we will be for Men’s Volleyball,” Cullen said. “Those sports just don’t have quite as much recognition. I’d say the biggest thing for us would be sneaking into the NCAA [Men’s Basketball] Tournament.”
In 2019, the first 52 games of March Madness averaged nearly 3 million viewers. Since there are not millions of viewers watching Pepperdine’s national competitions, effective branding helps the university capitalize on any attention that its sports do draw and build the school’s national recognition.
A poll revealed that 75.5% of 102 respondents believed that branding of an athletics department is “important” or “somewhat important” for the image and recognition of a university. Of the 102 respondents, 42% were Pepperdine students. Of those Pepperdine students, 53% were Division 1 student-athletes.
“Often, if you can’t recognize the logo, then the brand isn’t doing a good enough job in establishing itself,” said Rachel Jolly, a senior integrated marketing and communications major. “As a company, one of your main goals should be to work to create a brand that’s recognizable, and something that people have strong associations with.”
A graph of responses to the question, “How Important is the Branding of an Athletics Department for the Image and Recognition of a University?” Graph by Karl Winter.
The same poll revealed that at least a majority of respondents could correctly name the primary athletic logo for the University of Oregon Ducks (59% of respondents), University of Texas Longhorns (62%), University of Washington Huskies (68%), University of Michigan Wolverines (70%), University of Georgia Bulldogs (76%) and University of Miami Hurricanes (94%). However, only 23% correctly selected the long-form “Pepperdine Waves” as the main emblem.
The abundance of secondary logos found on Pepperdine’s athletic facilities and apparel, and the resulting confusion surrounding the primary logo, stems from the freedom provided to each individual coach of the school’s 17 Division 1 sports teams.
“We really allow our sports to do what they want,” Herold said. “ … We want to make sure that teams could have what I like to call ‘unique consistency.’”
A collage of Pepperdine athletic logos on clothing and signage around the Malibu campus. Photos by Karl Winter, collage by Kyle McCabe.
Herold said that the coaches are given a “brand book” from which to choose logos for their teams. Cullen agreed that the coaches “are on their own” in terms of the apparel they design for their team.
“For beach volleyball, the orange and blue ‘P’ is like, ‘that’s Pepperdine,’ and girls who play beach volleyball know that’s what we stand for,” said Caputo. “ … Within our gear we have variety [of logos].”
Self-proclaimed sports logos “virtual museum” SportsLogos.net lists one secondary logo, seven alternate logos and seven wordmark logos for Pepperdine — and the incorrect primary logo.
Ultimately, Waves fans like Jolly are just confused.
“When I think of Pepperdine athletics, a lot of different logos cross my mind,” Jolly said. “I honestly couldn’t tell you what the Pepperdine Athletics logo is, which is kind of a bummer … I think if you did recognize it, then it’d be doing better in conveying its brand.”
Jolly’s solution seems simple enough in theory.
“I think that for Pepperdine Athletics, there should be one established logo,” Jolly said.
The head coaches of each individual program in the Pepperdine Athletics department are not only able to choose the logos that are featured on team apparel, but they also influence the decision of which apparel brand provides the best-quality gear for their athletes.
“Giving us the flexibility to be able to negotiate those things on an individual sport basis gives us the best for each individual sport,” Cullen said. “We’re not a school that’s going to be getting $25 million from Nike every year, like University of Oregon gets, to keep everything that way.”
This infographic shows all of the athletic apparel sponsors Pepperdine partners with and their coordinating sports. Pink graphics represent women’s sports, and blue graphics represent men’s sports. Infographic by Kyle McCabe.
However, Under Armour is the only brand of the six Pepperdine outfitters that is available to family members of athletes and other Waves fans.
There is no apparel featuring Nike, Asics or any of the other brands available in the Pepperdine Bookstore in the Tyler Campus Center, or on the bookstore’s online site.
“I own more sports gear from other colleges than from my own school,” Jolly said. “ … I don’t own any [Pepperdine] athletic gear, nothing I could work out in, or anything like that.”
A company called Follett is contracted to run the bookstore, and Herold said that Pepperdine Athletics “[has] nothing to do with Follett.”
“The good news is our Chief Business Officer here is trying to get a better handle of the retail play and how Athletics and Follett could maybe strengthen that a little bit,” Herold said.
The Athletic department does hire students to run a small team shop that sells generic Waves gear during basketball, indoor volleyball, baseball and women’s soccer home games, but the “shop” is only open during those times, Cullen and Herold each explained.
“We are running the store when we can,” Cullen said. “We’re just small … We have general things that we produce. [Apparel production] doesn’t have a home right now, and that’s just because we have had some staffing changes here.”
The Potts-Herold Solution
Since Potts’ hiring in January 2011 and Herold’s hiring in June 2011, Pepperdine Athletics has focused on the establishment of the new logo and color scheme, physical branding around campus and social media efforts.
A new, darker shade of blue (“Collegiate Navy”) was implemented across the entire department, Herold said. The new “P” logo was developed from the “D” in the “Pepperdine Waves” wordmark (the true primary logo), Cullen said. More recently, Potts and Herold focused on attaching the “P” to the “Waves” mascot, because there are so many schools, even in the West Coast Conference, represented by a “P.”
“Maybe in the last like four years, we’ve really wanted to make sure that the ‘P’ is anchored by the ‘Waves,’” Herold said. “…It just allows us to have a little bit more uniqueness.”
Around the athletic facilities on the Malibu campus, the new ‘P’ is visible everywhere, as offices, fence signage, locker rooms and a new film room have been upgraded in the past eight years.
This video, featuring Director of Athletics Steve Potts, depicts some of the recent additions to the branding around Pepperdine’s facilities. Video by Advent, the company hired to establish some of the new signage.
“[A] big part of our storytelling is what the public can see, [and] that’s great for recruiting,” Herold said. “ … [It] gives some color and life to our buildings. [It is] the best way that we can tell our story to those who walk through, and we have a lot of foot traffic.”
Herold said the success of the school’s physical branding can be gauged simply by the ordinary individual’s response.
“If we see people taking pictures in front of our displays, we know they work,” Herold said. “ …If our coaches tell us that recruits are impressed with our story, that’s definitely a way that we would measure success.”
This “story” includes statistics and records for each individual program, inspirational quotes emblazoned on the walls of academic and locker rooms and even a list of Olympians from Pepperdine.
Though Pepperdine may lack the national recognition of a football team or consistent NCAA Tournament appearances in Men’s Basketball (the most recent appearance was 17 years ago), success in sports like volleyball (beach and indoor), tennis and water polo is more recognized during Summer Olympic years, Herold said.
“We think that in an Olympic year we have some pretty good reach because of our Olympic sports,” Herold said.
In addition to physically showcasing accomplishments (like Olympians who come from Pepperdine), Potts and Herold have also kept up with the influence of social media on branding efforts.
Each Pepperdine athletic program has its own Twitter account (run by Athletics Marketing staff) and Instagram account (run by the athletes themselves, except Men’s Water Polo does not have an Instagram account). Each account’s profile picture contains either the ‘P’ logo with a blue background (for men’s sports) or the logo with an orange background (for women’s sports).
“From a branding perspective, I think that we [try] to remain consistent with the things that we control,” Cullen said. “We’ve got a certain voice on Twitter now, we’ve got a certain voice on the main Pepperdine account on Instagram. I think those are the things that we’re trying to stay up with the times of what other schools are doing.”
The Athletics Communications and Marketing team uses a company called Box Out Sports to build templates for social media infographics, which is another way that the department establishes consistency across its various social media accounts.
“That’s why our stuff looks so good, because we invested in this software,” Herold said.
Finally, Potts and Herold helped to establish the Pepperdine Riptide rally crew, which has since established “Waves Up” as a rallying slogan and the accompanying hand signal. The previous “Roll Waves” slogan attempt never caught on, Herold said.
“[The slogan] ‘Ayo Waves’ is like main campus,” Herold said. “Pepperdine Athletics uses ‘Waves Up.’”
“Compared to other other schools that have come up with things that have more history… I think [it] is going to be tougher at a smaller school [to create a good slogan],” Caputo said.
There is a school somewhat similar to Pepperdine, however, that has developed a different solution to branding challenges.
The Loyola Marymount Solution
“LMU just did a huge rebrand,” Cullen said. “Down to the point that they even changed their colors again.”
Loyola Marymount University (LMU), Pepperdine’s PCH Cup rival, officially launched their new branding in early April. The rebrand involves an all-new color palette and logo set that applies to the academic and athletic departments.
“In the case of having the two brands related, I believe that is the goal of every institution,” wrote Nicklos Bristol, director of marketing at LMU Athletics. “Our new branding ties everyone together under the same color scheme and by sharing marks between Athletics and the University.”
A summary of the logos from Loyola Marymount University’s recent rebrand, along with distinctions for where each logo is used. Image courtesy of SportsLogos.net.
Bristol wrote in an email that this is the first time LMU has brought their academic and athletic logos together, although “the campus did adopt athletics’ colors.”
Jolly said she thinks Pepperdine’s logos are limited by the one-word name of the University, the singular “P” that represents it and the “goofy” athletic mascot, but consistency between academics and athletics would benefit Pepperdine.
“There is a big segmentation between the rest of the school and athletics,” Jolly said. “Which is a bummer because those athletes are doing everything that everyone else is doing. And they’re still part of the school but they’re in a completely different brand.”
Bristol wrote that LMU considers the rebrand an early success because of the community’s positive reaction. He wrote that people are buying new merchandise and campus groups are using the new branding for events like Preview Day and Commencement.
“In athletics, our coaches are excited to get their new gear for the fall,” Bristol wrote. “And we’ve been able to implement our new marks across our digital platforms pretty seamlessly as well.”
This video from March 2019 announces the new visual identity system of LMU. Video posted by Loyola Marymount University.
Pepperdine’s academic and athletic logos do not even share a color palette.
“We really wanted to be navy, which is a little different than the university’s blue, which is kind of smack in the middle of royal and navy,” Harold said describing her and Pott’s arrival at Pepperdine. “Our orange is pretty true to the orange that the university has.”
Challenges and Limitations at Pepperdine
Cullen said the lack of cohesion between Pepperdine University and Pepperdine Athletics is notable because athletes “[represent] a tenth of the student population.” Additionally, many schools with recognizable branding, like Miami or Oregon, use the same logo scheme for both academics and athletics.
“I will say that a lot of different schools, particularly the ones you’ve picked out [for the previously mentioned poll], use the same mark for both the academic side and the athletic side,” Cullen said.
Although there is a disconnect between academics and athletics branding, to the point that very little athletic signage can be found on Main Campus, Caputo believes the gap can be reconciled.
“I think that [bridging the gap] has been something that student-athletes and athletics are trying to [do] … I think that will eventually help brand the university,” Caputo said. “The goal first needs to be that the student athletes are being supported by other students on campus and other student-athletes.”
Unfortunately, the difficulty of establishing infrastructure in Malibu is a limitation that the department faces in developing its brand.
“Anything external here, it’s a struggle,” Cullen said. “That’s the bread and butter of college athletics fundraising, is changing physical facilities. Here we just can’t move it forward … we need to put something in a 15-year plan.”
Herold helped to engineer the branding efforts of the facilities, but she and Cullen acknowledge that any major overhaul is compromised by the difficulties of appeasing the City of Malibu.
“Our facilities are difficult to upgrade, just because of where we sit and Malibu and how difficult it is to do construction here,” Herold said. “But there’s definitely ways that we can enhance it.”
Furthermore, as a small, private school, Cullen mentioned that staffing is a limitation of the department.
“Actually look at the number of marketing and communication staff [that we have] … and compare it to some of these other institutions, even within our own conference,” Cullen said. “ … We’ve had some people bouncing back and forth with what they’re doing. So I would say that isn’t consistent.”
Consistency is the major concern of students like Jolly.
“I understand the struggle, and what it implies, but I do think, if Pepperdine could create a logo or create consistent branding across athletics, academics … that would be beneficial,” Jolly said.
Ultimately, the problem is not student enrollment. The University becomes more and more selective each year, Herold said.
“[Enrollment] is not the issue at all,” Herold said. “We’re having to be more and more selective. For us, it would be more just recognition of the accomplishments that a small school can make.”
The Waves have performed well since Potts’ and Herold’s arrival, finishing no lower than No. 107 in the Director’s Cup final rankings and as high as No. 64, top among schools without football in 2011-2012.
If the teams are successful, why is there such confusion surrounding the branding?
“It’s not even just a logo or anything … you don’t know when games are and you don’t know when things are happening,” Jolly said. “That’s a bummer, because we’re pretty good in a lot of sports. People just don’t even know.”