Thursday, July 22, 2010

Same as it Ever Was: Rebranding the YMCA

Today's post is by architectural historian Paula Lupkin, who is in the American Culture Studies department at Washington University in St. Louis. Lupkin is author of Manhood Factories: YMCA Architecture and the Making of Modern Urban Culture.


It isn’t often that conservative Christians and the Village People find themselves in agreement, but marketing strategies can make for strange bedfellows. Both groups have objected to the YMCA of the USA’s recent announcement that it was dropping the M, C, and A from its corporate name. Henceforth the social service organization, best known for its gym and swim facilities, will be called “The Y.” This shortened name, as well as an extensive rebranding campaign complete with new logo, typeface, and a bright colorful palette, is meant to help the public re-imagine the organization’s identity as a modern, dynamic institution for the 21st century.

For most people this change is no big deal; after all, people have been calling it "The Y" for decades. Others feel that quite a lot is at stake. Left behind is the Y’s historical commitment to the C, which displeases religious groups like the American Family Association. For the Village People the suppression of the M is a repudiation of the gay culture that once flourished in YMCA buildings. Both groups are suffering from nostalgia. Their wildly divergent perceptions are longings for earlier iterations of an organization that is moving, as it has always done, inexorably towards the future. Ever since its founding more than one hundred and fifty years ago the YMCA has nimbly retained its social relevance by adapting its mission and methods to contemporary conditions. This re-naming is just the latest in a long line of market-driven strategies the organization has employed over the years.

"The Y" was first founded in the United States in 1854 to meet the needs of a new and growing population: young, single, urban white-collar workers. The mass migration of young men from countryside search of jobs in growing industrial cities resulted in social dislocation and active concern among evangelical Christians like John Wanamaker and J.P. Morgan. Young men, adrift from the moral oversight of their families and footloose in the city’s saloons and theaters, were in need of guidance and education. The YMCA stepped in to help produce an ethical and efficient workforce for modern America. At first this was accomplished through traditional evangelical methods, including bible classes, tract distribution, and attempts to pass laws against the sale of pornographic literature. It quickly became apparent that these means were not winning over enough young men and the group was quick to try new approaches. To remain competitive in the age of vaudeville, movie theatres, burlesque, and other new urban attractions they were forced to change their methods of persuasion.

Central to this adaptation was the development of the YMCA building as a “manhood factory” that incorporated popular activities like sports and vocational training. Up through the Depression the Y constantly made adjustments in their equipment and programming to maintain a competitive advantage with commercial mass culture for the souls of young men, adding swimming pools, basketball courts, dormitory rooms, and even (gasp!) billiards tables. The organization used the latest advertising techniques, including billboards and electric signs, to attract members, and pioneered the short-term fund-raising campaign (best known through NPR’s regular on-air appeals) to raise money for new buildings. Seeking greater societal influence, the Y also evolved in the nineteenth century to serve a much broader constituency. Beginning in the 1880s and 1890s it opened special Y buildings for railroad men, university students, factory workers, military men, African-Americans, and young boys. As time went on they admitted non-evangelicals (even Catholics and Jews) to membership and focused less on saving souls and more on building character and physical strength.

The loss of its traditional religious identity, which dates back even into the nineteenth century, was disturbing to many old-time Y leaders, who fought to keep the C in the YMCA. It was, unfortunately, a losing battle. The constant process of negotiation between the traditional Protestant ethic they hoped to uphold and the consumer culture that fueled growth and modernization always resulted in compromises that moved the organization farther from its religious roots and toward a more ecumenical role as a provider of social services and facilities.

The mission of the organization and its role in American life continued to evolve throughout the twentieth century, often in ways unanticipated by its leaders. During the First World War it provided recreational facilities and canteen service to soldiers of all faiths in the European theater. This reinforced the Y’s increasingly ecumenical role into the interwar years. At about this time gay men grew increasingly attracted to the Y precisely because it was an all-male environment and sheltered a homosocial lifestyle. Leaders attempted to leave this unsavory identity behind in the 1950s by moving away from its traditional mission to single urban men to serve families, including women and children, in new suburban community centers. Since then the focus has been a more general, secular mission of building strong bodies and minds and serving communities, both urban and suburban.

The result of the Y’s extended process of secularization and constant investment in new facilities is its contemporary identity as a building, not an organization. Research suggests that most people only think of the YMCA as a gym, even though many of its branches had extensive programs in daycare for working parents, education for new citizens, and public health programs. Thus the need for a new name and a new logo—to highlight dedication to its newly reformulated goals: “commitment to nurturing the potential of kids, promoting healthy living, and fostering a sense of social responsibility.”

In a pragmatic and inclusive move, Y leaders do acknowledge the importance of heritage in their new identity. The redesigned logo incorporates the organization’s original triangular symbol of mind, body, and spirit into its “Y." New marketing materials include a highly sanitized reference to the Village People’s song and dance. Perhaps the best-known thing about the YMCA, it is regularly performed at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and sporting events even thirty years after its release. The sly double entendre of the song is probably lost on most of those who do the dance today, including the fresh faced, athletically dressed young men and women who pose in the shape of the four letters on the Y’s new website.

The decision to incorporate the popular dance into its new identity simultaneously acknowledges the song’s potency and suppresses the original meaning in favor of a perky and wholesome image. I think of it as a canny and bold role reversal for the organization. No longer is it passively responding to popular culture to remain relevant. Instead, it is coopting the phenomenon for its own purposes. The Y’s use of contemporary advertising strategies like rebranding and the soi-disant hipness of a shortened name (like KFC) is not a repudiation of its heritage. It is in keeping with the Y’s history as an institution that evolves, changes, and embraces new ways to accomplish its goals.


Paula Lupkin is author of Manhood Factories: YMCA Architecture and the Making of Modern Urban Culture. She can be reached at

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