Can you teach a 201 year old dog new tricks?

Bringing a Historic University Society into the 21st Century

In April 2016, Crucible was thrilled to be asked to rebrand our oldest client, the Cambridge Union.

The Union was founded as a debating society in 1815, but today it holds a unique position. The University is without an official Students’ Union building, which means the standard campus-based bar and entertainment venue that most students take for granted simply doesn’t exist. The Union fills the void left by this lack of official venue, but vitally, it is a private organisation and receives no external funding.


This means that students must be enticed to pay the substantial joining fee for life-membership, with the approximately 1500 students that join each year representing the vast majority of the Union’s operating budget. Secondary incomes include corporate events, sponsorship, fundraising, and café-bar profits.

The vital aspect of achieving high membership numbers is in attracting speakers of international renown: the society has played host to figures ranging from Ronald Reagan to Dame Judi Dench. Attracting these names is unpredictable; entire year’s budgets can depend on the decision to speak of one Hollywood A-lister.

A rebrand was sought, in part, to remove a variable; continuity in the Union’s collateral has long been lacking. The new logo was also considered vital in shaking off negative associations; in the 1970s and 80s student committees managed its finances poorly and often took advantage of the perks of their positions. This part of its history still damages the Union’s reputation today, with much of the world still seeing it as a stuffy members’ club.

The reality is much different. In the 1990s the Union appointed a full-time bursar to manage its finances, and now has a full permanent staff. Much more consideration is given to long term sustainability, and it is also a registered charity, running a schools’ debating competition for secondary schools nationwide to help train their best future public speakers.

Union's previous alignment to University Branding

This radical shift for the Union has never been reflected in its brand image, which Crucible was keen to rectify. Until 2016, it has still used variants of the crest used for the ‘stuffy members’ club’ since 1815. While the crest aligned it closely with the university, it lacked representation of most of the other vital aspects of the Union. In its new brand it sought a dramatic shift towards the modern, outward-facing organisation that it is today.

One of the major challenges for Crucible was working with the committee and trustees to distil a number of wide-ranging academic characteristics of the society – its history, its alignment to the University, its role as an entertainment venue, and its role in preserving free speech – into one succinct logo. The decision was taken to focus on that which makes it so famous – its defence of free speech.


After several consultations with the Union and a vast array of concepts being developed, we settled upon the quotation mark glyph as a suitable visual motif for carrying such a nebulous philosophical context. Various iterations of early concepts were considered, including visual representations of the Union building or debating chamber, more abstract concepts representing discourse and ‘exchange’ and even simply modernising the crest. The final idea, while a significant departure, was felt to represent the driving idea behind the modern Union succinctly and attractively.


Other changes initiated by Crucible have included dropping the word ‘society’ from the organisation’s official name in order to move away from the ‘student club’ image, and the website will shortly switch from (Cambridge Union Society) to, to reflect this. The new motto, ‘Defending Free Debate since 1815’ sought to press home the message of the Union’s raison d’être, while also allowing the brand to retain a link to the positive aspects of its history.cus-blog-post-4

The hope for the new branding and collateral is that the Union appears as a modern, 21st century, professional, transparent and open organisation. Already it has been used across the collateral for the society’s current £5m fundraising campaign, and has seen great success in doing so. Crucible continues to offer ongoing support and assistance while the new brand settles in.



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