CHAMPAIGN — Coming soon to Krannert's main stage: Nnanna Egwu and several other University of Illinois athletes.
In a fashion show-like event, complete with sound effects and special lighting, the basketball teammates will launch a new look for the Illini later this month.
"It's a great opportunity for us to be part of the whole celebration," Egwu said. "A new look would be good — good for the program, good for Nike."
As of last week, Egwu and his fellow models had not seen the new design. But they will be sporting new-look jerseys, shoes and other apparel — all with the familiar Nike swoosh — next season. So will the UI's football and women's basketball teams.
The athletic department's planned unveiling of the results of a more than year-long "rebranding" process with Nike will be on April 16 in the Foellinger Great Hall in the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts. Donors, fans, alumni and others have been invited to attend. (People also can watch online.)
Krannert was chosen because officials wanted a large enough facility to accommodate the event — the hall seats about 2,000; State Farm Center is currently a construction zone — and because it had the right sound and lighting system for the type of show they're going for, said Kent Brown, associate director for media relations.
In recent weeks, the department has been working to build momentum and generate interest in the big reveal by releasing teaser videos about the creative process and the reasons behind the rebranding. Officials declined to release any details about the top-secret new identity before the event. But something new is in store.
"There are definitely some new elements within our brand portfolio," said assistant athletic director Marty Kaufmann. "The biggest thing for us now, whether people see big or small changes, is that there's consistency."
And that people recognize there's a "story" and "relationship" behind the updated identity.
According to Jan Slater, dean of the UI's College of Media, a brand is a promise that the product or service is consistently delivered to its target group. It has real functionality, does something, adds value or rewards consumers for using or watching, she said.
"The branding is then how they deliver that promise and messaging," she said.
Tide, Pampers, McDonald's ... their brands have stayed the same.
But some university athletic departments have a difficult time deciding what their brand promise is.
"People think you need to articulate that in a tag line. That's not what it is," said Slater, a branding expert. "I think what goes through these schools, and Nike plays a real role in this, is it is a new thing. They're trying to express a new era, a new feeling. There's a new group, a new coach, a new athletic director, so there's going to be this new look."
That desire to mark a new era often prompts an update to the "brand identity."
Given State Farm Center's renovations and director Mike Thomas' work on integrating athletics more with the campus, Slater isn't surprised the department is going through the process.
"It makes sense," she said.
'The cutting edge'
The rebranding process for Illinois athletics, Kaufmann said, was really about taking a look at its visual identity. That includes logos, color schemes, fonts and uniforms — "and making sure we're providing a visual image that helps define our department and our program and teams. We want to make sure our coaches and student-athletes feel like we are providing them with the looks and logos and brands that they're proud of and excited about."
It's been some time since Illinois athletics underwent something like this — at least since the '90s, Kaufmann estimated.
To help them with the project, the UI has turned to Nike, with whom it has a 10-year contract to be the teams' exclusive provider of shoes and apparel. (The company provides these design services gratis, per the contract. The UI will retain copyright to any designs, also per its agreement with Nike.)
Nike typically works with four schools each year on their brand identities. Last year, the schools included UConn, Georgia, Oregon State and Cal.
Nike officials declined to be interviewed for this story, not wanting to spoil the surprise.
Rebranding "is a popular thing to do now," among athletic departments, said Jason Hobar, Cal's assistant athletic director of branding. "Number one, your brand is important and you need to be recognized by your logos. And being consistent is important, especially in crowded marketplaces. And from a recruiting standpoint, there's a lot of attention paid to uniforms."
"It's exciting to be on the cutting edge. We'll be the only one in the Big Ten with a new look next year," said Illinois women's basketball coach Matt Bollant.
When UI coaches met with members of Nike's team, they were informed about the process — what they were doing and why — and shown different ideas. Coaches also provided some input on designs.
Bollant said recruits are shown a brochure of all the things they will receive from Nike if they sign with Illinois.
"The shoes obviously are a big deal, but also uniforms, warmups, travel suits and other gear," he said.
In the branding world, there's a big discussion going now around one question. "Is this really necessary to have new uniforms at every turn?" Slater said. "But Nike does that, of course, because they are selling more merchandise. They have a whole new line that people can buy."
Another issue being raised, according to Slater: "Do we really want Nike to build our own brands?"
"Nike's been very aggressive in this rebranding effort and they're investing a lot in their ... return on their investment," she said. "I think they have seen schools with big programs — Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, move to Adidas ... and now they're looking for ways to differentiate themselves."
Football, basketball first
The rationale behind Cal's rebranding was to create "a more cohesive look" among its teams, Hobar said. Like Illinois, many of Cal's teams used slightly different logos.
"It was very fragmented from an identity statement," Hobar said.
Cal's process took about 18 months and involved coaches and others being interviewed about what the school meant to them, its history and traditions, their goals for the project and an evaluation of the logos, colors and fonts used over the years. It also culminated with a public launch, where athletes modeled the new look.
The school introduced a new look to its Bear mascot, but kept its primary, iconic logo — the "Cal" script.
"Going into it, we had good four-to-six-week marketing plan. People were prepared for it," Hobar said. Cal shared sneak previews with some of its best-known alumni — like Brooklyn Nets coach Jason Kidd and Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch — and filmed their reactions.
"We had a good, positive buildup to that moment," he said.
And when the big reveal occurred, "people responded to it really well." A local newspaper poll showed a 91 percent approval rating, Hobar said.
At Illinois, a rebranding has been on the radar for more than two years, but the process didn't kick off until around last February. That's when members of Nike's rebranding team came to campus and spoke with campus administration, athletic department officials, coaches and students. They've visited campus a few times since then.
UI officials also visited the company's headquarters in Beaverton, Ore. And there's been regular communication between the Nike offices and those in Bielfeldt Administrative Building, Kaufmann said.
Kaufmann and Brown said there is a lack of consistency among the Illinois teams when it comes to looks. Some use a "Block I" with a circle around it, the word Illinois underlined, the word Illinois written at an angle or a basketball or soccer ball with the word Illinois written through it. Plus, there could be a variety of fonts and shades of oranges and blue used.
Kaufmann called the rebranding "a clean-up" of the brand.
By going through this process, it will force the different units to use the new guidelines — for colors, fonts, etc. — that come about as a result of the rebranding, he said.
Not all teams will adopt new uniforms immediately — football and basketball will be first up. Under terms of its contract with Nike, the UI receives some free product (up to $1.2 million) every year, plus an annual cash payment of $325,000. But that doesn't nearly cover all of the expense involved in re-outfitting 19 Illinois varsity teams in new uniforms.
In recent years, UI athletics spent $360,565 (fiscal year 2012), $486,152 (2013) and $353,089 (2014, so far) on Nike product, according to the campus.
"It's an expensive proposition," Kaufmann acknowledged.
Highlights of the UI's agreement with Nike:
— Runs from: July 1, 2006 — June 30, 2015
— The UI had a 10-year agreement with the company prior to the current contract, making this the UI's 18th year with Nike.
— Negotiations haven't started on a new contract yet. Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who sits on the Nike board, has said she will not be involved in any negotiations for a new contract.
— The contract calls for Nike to be "the exclusive supplier of the athletic footwear, apparel and accessory products" of Illinois varsity sports.
— Among the various rules outlined in the contract: Coaches are required to wear and use exclusively Nike products during practice, games, exhibitions, clinics, sport camps, celebrations, etc.
"In the event any team member is unable to wear Nike footwear due to a bona fide medical condition as evidenced by a certification by the team's physician, then such team member shall be permitted to wear non-Nike footwear provided all visible manufacturer's identification is taped over and otherwise covered or otherwise covered so as to completely obscure such manufacturer's identification.
Wearing non-Nike nonathletic shoes is OK.
Nike's annual cash payment to UI: $325,000. That's before bonuses:
— Nike paid the UI a one-time "commitment" bonus of $500,000 after the contract was signed.
— Nike will pay the UI extra if the football team advances to a BCS game ($25,000) and if men's or women's basketball team advances to the Final Four ($25,000 for men; $10,000 for women).
— This school year, the UI can order up to $1.2 million in Nike product (shoes, uniforms, hats, undergarments, etc.).
— The UI can receive additional product if, for example, the football team competes in a bowl game.
The UI's licensing agent grants to Nike a retail license, which gives the company rights to sell a variety of products. Nike's royalty rate of 10 percent, the same rate others pay.
Under terms of its contract with the UI, Nike receives:
— Season tickets: 8 for football (between the 30-yard lines); 8 for men's basketball; 4 for women's basketball; and 4 for other ticketed sports programs.
— 12 men's and women's basketball tournament tickets: for the Big Ten tourney and the NCAA or NIT.
— 12 tickets to any football bowl game the Illini appear in.
— 50 tickets to one football game.
— 25 tickets to one men's basketball game.
— 4 parking passes at football and basketball games.
— The opportunity to hold pregame, halftime or postgame promotional events around Memorial Stadium.
— Signs placed around various venues, such as on scoreboards and in programs and media guides.