This article originally appeared on The Drum
As the Washington Commanders (formerly the Redskins) and Cleveland Guardians (formerly the Indians) embrace their new team identities, there are many lessons to be learned by other teams with names that are under scrutiny. While the Chicago Blackhawks, Kansas City Chiefs, and Atlanta Braves have not yet committed to changing their names or other aspects of their brands, it would be wise for them to consider it.
Many of the conversations have been about a “name change,” but this is bigger than brand naming. These sports organizations should view this as an opportunity to reflect on their current brand and create a new brand story, name, mascot, logo and overall brand experience that excites existing fans and attracts new fans alike.
For example, the Braves and Blackhawks claim that their names honor Native Americans and they won’t be considering a name change. But their brands also inspire things like fans painting their faces red, the tomahawk chop and dressing in Native American costumes at games. Despite good intentions, the names are intricately linked to troubling brand identities and behaviors. As such, the name and entire brand should be reviewed.
However, changing a name and a brand is not a simple task. With the backdrop of racist legacies, it’s important that professional sports teams take the process seriously and get it right.
Here are some important things they should do and avoid to rebrand the right way:
Do… speak to those you’ve wronged to get real insight.
The world has changed. These teams and their brands need to reflect that change. Each team should set up a council of tribal leaders to solicit input and guidance. Start by asking the council whether your current name is offensive and which parts of your brand need to change. If the council says it all needs to go, then listen and honor their advice. Begin a complete rebrand. This holds true for other brands with a checkered past or racist legacies.
Don’t… focus only on the name.
The name is just a part of a brand. Focusing on just the name is short-sighted and won’t solve all the teams’ problems. Instead, there’s a world of opportunity that comes with a full rebrand. Not least of which is the opportunity to modernize your visual identity. Traditionally, US sports team logos or mascots are cartoonish, pictorial and literal. The cartoonish trend can be at odds with a more modern, serious tone of the sport. The literal depiction also prevents fans from interpreting their own meaning into the icon. The Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers are examples of logos that leave a little more to the imagination and can feel more modern, especially in the digital realm. Jumping across sports leagues, the new Seattle Kraken stylized ’K’ really hits the mark by feeling modern, exciting and open to the imagination.
Do… get everyone involved, not just a homogenous management team.
As you change the name, logo and brand story, solicit creative input and ideas from a diverse set of creators. Include ideas from Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC). This continues to ensure representation in the new brand. Perhaps more importantly, the best creative ideas come from including the broadest perspectives.
Don’t… make the same mistake twice.
You only want to change your name and brand once. Take steps to ensure you’re changing to the right new name and brand. Be sure to conduct trademark reviews, linguistic and cultural screens, and get feedback via consumer research. By fully vetting the new brand, you’ll ensure you’re not selecting a new idea/name/mascot that has problems of its own.
Do… get the entire organization involved.
Ask the organization’s players and management to participate in creating names. Engage fans by soliciting name ideas from them too. This is a great way to engage various stakeholders in the process, which will eventually help get them excited about the new brand.
You’ve got a problem. Own it. Also, own that a successful rebrand takes real time and effort. Create a timeline that allows for inclusivity and proper vetting. Then, when you have a new brand, get the launch right. Just like the rebrand itself is an opportunity to start a new story, the launch is a vital PR opportunity to announce and activate your new brand experience (not just a name). Invite the players, tribal leaders, other BIPOC involved and your fans to participate in the launch. Generate buzz. Drop hints. Make it exciting.
A name change and rebrand is a once in a lifetime opportunity for teams to launch a new, modern experience that excites fans and takes their franchises into the future. If teams with questionable names follow the advice above, they can achieve the same excitement and fanfare as the Seattle Kraken’s launch.
Aaron Hall is Group Director of Naming on the San Francisco team.