Cal or UC Berkeley? Brand experts contemplate a single name

[San Francisco Chronicle] Cal or UC Berkeley? Brand experts contemplate a single name

Ask Peter Symonds where he went to college, and his answer might depend on who you are — or why you’re asking.

“If we’re at a football game, I might say I went to Cal,” said Symonds, a civil engineer who lives in Pleasant Hill. “But if I’m in a professional setting, I’ll say I went to UC Berkeley.”

Switching between the more colloquial “ Cal ” and the loftier “ UC Berkeley ” is common among alumni of the venerable public university that is known for its Nobel laureates and research laboratories, but also for its Pac-12 football team.

UC Berkeley’s dual identity has triggered an existential quandary for people like Symonds, who takes pride in his engineering degree and in his school spirit — he met his wife in the clarinet section of the Cal Band, and he still attends most Cal football games.

More pressingly, though, the two discrete labels have created a branding problem for the institution, one that perplexed Chancellor Carol Christ.

Last month she formed a task force of students, alumni, administrators and brand experts, and asked them to research how people understand and deploy the two names.

The idea: Find a way to merge them, or at least to make them co-exist more harmoniously. By the end of the year, Christ hopes the task force can “develop a naming framework” to encompass the university’s traditions, reputation, sponsorship and licensing agreements and relationships with donors.

“Having two distinct identities for one entity is highly problematic from a branding perspective,” the chancellor wrote in a Sept. 16 letter to the task force, comparing UC Berkeley’s conundrum to a scenario in which Apple products are known both as “Mac” and “iPhone,” without the Apple logo to associate the two. She noted that university guidelines bar some departments and programs from mixing bear imagery with the Berkeley moniker, which “leads to a great deal of confusion and frustration.”

For Joe Terhemen Igber, a star running back on the Cal football team who endured grueling practices while pursuing an engineering degree, both “Cal” and “Berkeley” are freighted with painful memories.

Igber said that other students dismissed him for being a scholarship athlete, and despite his achievements on the field — he ran 226 yards during his last Big Game in 2002 — football occasionally felt like detention

He now works as a structural engineer in Oakland and doesn’t mention his Cal undergraduate or graduate degrees in his biography.

“I just tell people I went to the local UC,” he said.

Other alumni identify more strongly with the university, even if if carries different meaning, depending on the situation.

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“It’s definitely something that many alumni have to deal with,” said Frankie Garland, a former drum major for the Cal band who now lives in Philadelphia, where he works as a deputy general counsel for the Philadephia Phillies baseball team. Like Symonds, Garland conceives of Berkeley as an Ivory Tower minting Fullbright Scholars, and “Cal” as the name people chant on Game Day.

As a member of the band, Garland said he felt more strongly tied to the iconic blue script of the “Cal” logo than to the word “Berkeley.”

“If anyone had said ‘Berkeley band’ or ‘Berkeley football,’ that’s like nails on a chalkboard,” he said.

Still, Garland appreciates the multiple personalities of the university, and said that in a sense, the different names stand for the diverse population of students and faculty.

Symonds said he would like to see institutional roadblocks lifted, so that academic groups can use the name “Cal,” and athletic teams can use UC Berkeley branding — so long as it doesn’t result in a weird amalgam, like “Berkeley Athletic Department.”

Rachel Swan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @rachelswan