New Sparky: Positive Change or PR Misfire?

On March 1, Arizona State University unveiled a new version of its beloved Sparky. The new mascot, designed through a partnership with Disney, has caused an uproar among ASU students, fans and alumni.

The University unveiled both an illustrated Sparky, which will be used on youth merchandise, and a new mascot costume, which will replace the mascot ASU currently uses. The widely-used illustrated Sparky that currently adorns everything from merchandise to University organization logos will continue to be used alongside the new illustrated version and new mascot.

Unfortunately, students and fans have flooded social media with comments claiming that the new Sparky is not up to par. New Sparky has been compared to everything from Buzz Lightyear to the Honey Nut Cheerios bee. Multiple Facebook groups and pages objecting to the new Sparky have cropped up, and two petitions on Change.org pleading with ASU to change Sparky back total more than 3,000 signatures combined.

newsparky

But what has the university said in response to this uproar?

On the day the mascot unveil, ASU News, managed by the University’s Office of Public Affairs, published a list of frequently asked questions about the partnership with Disney and the new mascot. These FAQs assured students that no cash was exchanged between ASU and Disney for the new characters and that the process of changing the mascot has been in progress for two years. The FAQs also claimed that the University conducted focus groups as research before implementing the changes.

However, students still are not buying ASU’s claims. A YouTube video published by Devils Chowda, an entertainment show through the campus media outlet, depicts the process of changing the mascot.

The University has yet to directly address fans’ anger over the mascot changes. From a public relations standpoint, is this a good thing? Should ASU address fans’ issues with the new mascot and risk their relationship with Disney or pretend that ASU is still the happiest place on earth despite the unwelcome changes?

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8 Responses to New Sparky: Positive Change or PR Misfire?

  1. Devon Shaw says:

    The new Sparky looks exactly like a typical Disney character, with big buggy eyes and friendly face. I can see how ASU’s faculty would approve of the new Sparky because he looks less menacing and is likely to be a hit with children. While I’m sure ASU is likely to develop more devoted childhood followers who will want to go to the school after growing up around its friendly Buzz Lightyear-like mascot, the current students deserve to be acknowledged. Essentially, ASU’s students are their client, they pay their tuition and likewise their paychecks. This means ASU should be addressing any concerns current students have, especially in this quantity.

  2. Alexa Chrisbacher says:

    It has been interesting to watch events unfold regarding the “new Sparky.” It’s clear that ASU is targeting a younger audience with this change, perhaps to attract future students. However, I think the school is unwise to ignore its most influential stakeholders: alumni. Student morale is important, but it’s ASU alums that really run the show.

    The question of whether to respond is interesting; would it help or hurt to participate in the conversation about this decision? It seems that Arizona State may have to stick to their pitchforks and tell naysayers that (nostalgia aside) they followed the research.

  3. Jessica Choi says:

    It has been a couple weeks since the unveiling of the new Sparky. The University still has not addressed their fans, students or alumni’s opinions and/or anger over the mascot changes. From a PR standpoint, this is not a good thing. The University should have addressed this potential problem from the get-go. Being transparent with their fans and taking the time to listen to current fans’ concerns about the new mascot would have helped the University avoid a crisis. The University is currently facing many complaints and skepticism from fans with their claims from the FAQs. Despite the University’s plans to “appeal to a younger audience,” the University needs to address their current fans’ issues. I do not think it will necessarily risk their relationship with Disney — ASU does not even need to make any changes since the reveal. But taking time to talk to their fans and fully explain both viewpoints will (hopefully) lead to a mutual understanding of why the University made the changes, and why fans feel the way they do. Ignoring fans will only make the situation worse and the University could potentially lose loyal fans.

  4. Nicole Lavella says:

    I actually read a State Press article today (http://www.statepress.com/2013/03/19/asu-to-incorporate-fan-feedback-for-new-sparky/) which stated that because of the negative backlash, ASU will be implementing a new online program that will allow people to provide feedback and vote on the new mascot changes. I think this is a brilliant PR move. As a student, I was not only upset with the changes, but also upset that they provided no prior warning and gave its stakeholders zero say in such a major change. ASU is a large school, and I often feel the administration is out of touch with its students. Thus, I applaud the University for recognizing how important the mascot is and how passionate people are about it. Though I’m sure part of the reason for the change is the threat of losing alums’ dollars, it sends the message that ASU cares about its community and what they have to say.

    On a side note, I think it’s interesting that the FAQs posted pointed out the mascot change was aimed at young children. Maybe it’s just because I’m a PR person, but I instantly wanted to read some type of research, statistic, etc. that backed up this claim. It seemed like they had guessed this creepy thing would appeal to children more than had actually tested it.

  5. Minda Elliott says:

    The new Sparky had such negative feedback from the public that now ASU is recalling Sparky and letting the students decide on the new design. They will create different designs for students to vote on, and then the winning design will be revealed at a football game this fall. Personally, I think this is an awesome way for ASU to get feedback from the public instead of just shoving a new design on them. The recall also shows that they respect their audience enough to admit their misjudgment and give the fans a chance to help with Sparky’s redesign.

    You can find more information about the recall here:http://www.azcentral.com/community/tempe/articles/20130319asu-new-sparky-design-scrapped-after-criticism.html

  6. Kelsey Pfeffer says:

    The YouTube of the students conferencing about what the mascot should look like was hilarious because it’s so dead on. I’m just not sure how this design could have possibly taken two years to produce? I’m pleased that the ASU board has decided to kick the design to the curb, but they are still yet to address whether they consulted with students before presenting the design. Because they’re taking such drastic measures by not continuing with this design, I think it’s important for them to speak out about this decision. I do think it was a good idea to publish the “frequently asked questions” release about their partnership with Disney. I’m just wondering why they were so candid about the partnership with Disney, but not so concerned initially about the opinions of the students.

  7. Josh Skalniak says:

    I don’t think there is anything the University can say that will take the fans’ anger away, unless they actually decide to change the mascot back; it seems they are laying low in hopes of the issue passing. I think ASU handled this issue totally wrong. They should have held a school-wide vote on whether to change the mascot. I think the vote would have brought more support for the change because students would feel like they have a voice in the matter. Maybe the University might decide to take a vote on the matter, eventually. If they do, I think the effects could only be positive.

  8. Kayla Pologa says:

    Change is never easy. Add in roughly 70,000 college students as stakeholders and you have a full-blown catastrophe following the decision to change beloved Sparky’s look. Sure, every once an a while a facelift may be needed — but if it isn’t broke, don’t go breaking it. Sparky has been iconic to ASU since his reveal on November, 20, 1946, when the student body VOTED to replace the then bulldog with the sun devil (that has later named Sparky in 1951).

    The point in bringing this history up is to show that the student body was involved in the process, as I believe they should be.

    There are going to be the supporters and the critics, and to that point, as many if not all PR pros should know, a professional needs to (and should) address the spectrum of reactions following a situation. Especially considering that these 60,000 voices are those belonging to some of the most vital stakeholders within the school.

    If they had done this, I believe that the backlash could have been mitigated. The unsatisfied students may still be angry, but at least they would know that their opinions were being heard.

    It’s clear that the student body needs to be not only acknowledged, but involved in this process if ASU ever wants these changes to go smoothly.

    If the marketing team had considered the backlash, it is quite possible they wouldn’t be in the position that they now face. The latest of these being that after a steady flow of negativity, ASU’s team decided to scrap the new design — this time drawing on the insight and help of students to bring about a Sparky that can once again be loved by all — concept that they should have considered from the start.

    http://www.azcentral.com/community/tempe/articles/20130319asu-new-sparky-design-scrapped-after-criticism.html

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