By LUKE JOHNSON
Tiger Rag Editor
Toonces entered the world with a bang.
It’s leaving with a whimper.
LSU is slowly phasing out the cartoon tiger head logo that, in various iterations, spent more than a decade as the official face of the University. A stylized snarling tiger head that is essentially a graphic refresh of the popular logo on LSU’s football helmets will take its place as the primary mark. LSU hopes the new logo resonates with a fan base that cherishes nostalgia.
"What we were trying to do is have a timeless tiger head,” said LSU spokesman Michael Bonnette. "We figure the one that’s on the helmet, with a few tweaks, gives us that.”
The switch has played out over a months-long process. In the past year, the cartoon tiger logo has disappeared from websites and uniforms. The most visible change came when LSU unveiled its new-look playing surface at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center in August of last year. It featured the new logo underneath the "Geaux Font” LSU lettering – a meshing of the 2002 rebrand and the new logo.
Call it a soft launch.
"The last time we introduced a new logo, we had a lot of fanfare with it and made a big deal out of it,” Bonnette said. "It was received well in some respects and not so well in others. We just figure this time we’ll phase this one in and phase out the old one.”
The old logo was part of a major brand overhaul in 2002. It originally featured a full-bodied cartoon tiger jumping over block LSU lettering with a shadow backdrop. As the brand evolved, the lettering dropped the shadow and became the highly successful "Geaux Font,” while the tiger logo was altered to the point where just the head remained.
LSU tried, but the logo never really latched on. It was time for a refresh.
"There’s been a push to phase out the old tiger head for a while,” Bonnette said. "We got rid of the full body one. It’s been a process that’s gone on for a couple years, maybe even longer.”
Slowly but surely, LSU is herding the old logo – the one some fans have mockingly taken to calling Toonces -- to its grave.
Good riddance, said the vocal majority.
"IT LOOKS RIDICULOUS.”
Situated in the parking lot outside Alex Box Stadium, long-time LSU fan Konrad Theriot proudly flies his purple and gold banners high above his tailgate.
Flapping in the warm spring air are two large flags – one bearing the Eye of the Tiger logo that has become popular with fans over the course of the last several years, the other bearing the logo dubbed, "the Beanie Tiger,” a vintage-looking cartoon tiger in purple and gold wearing a hat with LSU emblazoned on it.
A quick scan around his tailgate, which was hosting around a dozen people, reveals a notable omission.
Toonces is nowhere to be found. Not on a hat, shirt, cup or coozy. And it won’t be finding a home in Theriot’s tailgate any time soon.
Theriot purposely avoids buying merchandise with the logo on it, its cartoony visage not tough enough for his liking.
"I look at the mascot being fierce,” Theriot said. "A fighting tiger rather than a cartoon character. You expect your sports teams to be fierce, competitive.”
Theriot said he has just one piece of merchandise featuring the Toonces logo. "I have purchased a seat cushion with that logo on it,” he said, "but I’m covering it up when I use it.”
He’s just one voice, but he represents a general consensus. The logo’s unofficial and less-than-affectionate nickname says everything about how it was received by the fanbase in its time as LSU’s primary mark.
The cartoon tiger gave message board posters ample ammunition for viral jokes. They took to calling it "Toonces,” after the Saturday Night Live skit, "Toonces the driving cat.” There was a freeze frame from the skit where the cat made almost the exact same expression as the logo while holding up a driver’s license, and posters superimposed the logo onto the license. The name stuck.
The managing editor of SB Nation’s LSU fan blog And the Valley Shook, who goes by the pseudonym Pod Katt, has been one of the more outspoken critics of the Toonces logo. The main gripe has been with the cartoonish nature of the logo.
"It looks ridiculous,” Katt said. "There’s a common consensus among myself and other fans that I’ve talked to that past logos have looked a lot better. The Toonces logo looks like a cartoon character.”
Jason Feirman, who was LSU’s Publications Director from 2000-2013 before accepting a position as a Brand Strategist/Account Director at MESH Integrated Marketing and Advertising, had a hand in designing both the old and new logos.
"Design trends change,” Feirman said. "At the time, many college athletic teams were going to cartoon characters as their primary logo.”
Cartoon characters have worked in some respects. There was a major push in the late 1990s and early 2000s where several schools switched their logo to a cartoon-style mark. That list includes Florida (1998), Alabama (2001) and Arkansas (2001).
"It worked for many different audiences. Some audiences were used to the past and some audiences really didn’t care for cartoons.”
LSU fans in particular have not sided with the cartoon logo. And if fans are eager to see it hit the road, Ashley Fairley, a Buyer for the LSU merchandise store Tiger People, is ready to cater to what people want.
"We’re happy to see it go,” Fairley said. "We’re ready for a change. Mainly because, as far as retailers go, we want what our customers want, and the No. 1 thing they complain about is that tiger.
"People come in specifically and say, ‘Do you have anything without that tiger?’”
According to Fairley, nothing with the old logo is being produced anymore. Stores will still carry merchandise with the logo on it, but only because manufacturers are allowed to get rid of their stock.
That could take a while considering the ubiquitous nature of the old logo on merchandise.
"We will still have it until it sells out, or until we clearance it out or replace it with the new tiger,” Fairley said. "It’ll still be around for a while just because there’s so much of it out there, but you won’t see any new styles with that head.”
Fairley said her customers crave merchandise with LSU’s College Vault logos, or logos that are officially licensed by LSU, but no longer active, such as the "Beanie Tiger.”
The problem with College Vault merchandise is that only certain manufacturers are allowed to produce merchandise with those logos, and they have to pay a higher licensing fee in order to make the merchandise. A higher production cost leads to a higher price.
While the customers might balk at the price, LSU fans appreciate – and buy – the older logos.
That appreciation for the vintage marks combined with some unrelenting cyber harassment has made it tough for the old logo to survive as long as it has.
"I wouldn’t say people actively disliked it, they just weren’t a fan of it compared to what we had in the past,” Katt said. "As time went on and it became more of a joke, to the point where everybody knows what you’re talking about when you say, ‘Toonces,’ … it needs to go.”
"LET’S FIX THIS TIGER HEAD.”
LSU recognized that its fans craved a return to the more traditional tiger head logo and put the wheels in motion to making it a reality. But LSU couldn’t simply place the popular helmet logo that was created more than 40 years ago on a brand that has evolved over the last decade.
"You couldn’t put that 1972 mark next to the (Geaux Font) and had it have the same effect,” Feirman said. "We tried to marry it all together but come out with something that’s really sharp.”
LSU thinks it has struck that balance.
"The direction was, ‘Let’s fix this tiger head,’” said Feirman. "There was a great connection with the mark that’s on the helmet, that’s been on the helmet since 1972. So we looked at that as the focal point.”
The result was a cleaner, symmetrical version of the logo that is the centerpiece of the football helmet. It made its debut on an LSU uniform this past fall on the shorts the men’s basketball team wears – occupying the same spot as the Toonces logo in prior years.
"We wanted a tiger head … that would stand the test of time,” Bonnette said. "That’s what this tiger head gives us.”
"IT HAS MADE HUGE DIVIDENDS.”
For all the aversion surrounding the Toonces brand, it has corresponded with the glory years of LSU athletics.
Two football national championships, three SEC football titles, five College World Series appearances, six Final Four appearances by the Men’s and Women’s basketball teams – all accompanied by the smiley cartoon cat logo.
And LSU has been smiling right along with it on its way to the bank.
Brian Hommel, LSU’s Director of Trademark Licensing, said that while LSU doesn’t report precisely on royalties LSU receives from a particular logo, the numbers show that the 2002 rebrand has been wildly successful from a royalties standpoint.
In the year before the rebrand, LSU made $620,317 in gross royalties. That figure saw constant growth before swelling to $5,647,908 in the last fiscal year.
Regardless of how people feel about the old logo, it, along with the "Geaux Font” and dozens of other marks that were introduced in the 2002 redesign, have forever altered the LSU brand in a positive way.
"We went in a completely new direction (in 2002),” Feirman said. "What we did then, in the long term, it has made huge dividends. And not just for athletics, but the entire LSU/Baton Rouge campus.”
Of course, even with all the money LSU has raked in, with all the online jokes and mocking outcry, it is after all just a logo.
"It’s silly to begin with,” Katt said. "Let’s not act like this is some grave matter of life or death. But you’re going to say something if you don’t like something.”
Not all fans are completely against the Toonces logo, though.
Jack Corley, a 34-year-old Alexandria resident, was setting up his tailgate in a different corner of the Alex Box Stadium parking lot. His portable gazebo had four separate giant Toonces logos facing outward.
"Toonces? Doesn’t bother me at all,” Corley said.
He’s not firmly in its corner, he just doesn’t really care what LSU has as its primary logo.
"I just come to watch the boys play,” Corley said. "As long as they hang on to a tiger. I don’t want to go to a sea turtle or anything like that.”