Rebranding the Washington Football Team

Episode Summary:

One of the most exciting local rebrands on our radar right now? The Washington Football Team, which will kick off its season this Sunday under a temporary moniker for the first time in 90 years. As both a branding expert and a lifelong fan of the team, our CEO Lance Wain weighs in on Studio G with some of his hopes and hypotheses about what’s happening behind the scenes as a complete rebranding process gets underway.

Host: Clara Shannon, Marketing Associate

Interviewee: Lance Wain, CEO


Hey there. We just wanted to let you know that since recording this podcast on August 26, new allegations of widespread workplace misconduct by team executives have spurred even more pressure on the Washington Football Team to change not just its brand, but the culture and leadership of the organization up to the very top. It’s a story we’ll be closely following over the course of the next few months as NFL investigations continue to evolve.

In the meantime sit back, and take a listen to our podcast all about team branding, fan loyalty, and more.

**theme music**

I’m Clara Shannon, and this is Studio G.

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As racial injustices continue to spread across the country — a renewed demand for public reform amongst corporations have taken shape. From Quaker Oats, to GM – big organizations across the US have made public vows to change everything from their hiring practices, to their brand models.

One of the most exciting rebrands on our radar? The Washington Football Team, formally known as the Washington Redskins.

Sound Bite 1:
This morning the Washington Redskins are grappling with what history to keep and what to do away with…

Sound Bite 2:
…A sponsor of the Washington Redskins has asked the US football team to change its name.

Sound Bite 3:
…In a statement in a note to Amazon sellers. The company basically said that it’s going to pull a variety of products that feature the team including jerseys, t shirts, t shirts, rather and jewelry.

After years of efforts by Indigenous activists, and pressure from corporate sponsors such as FedEx, Amazon and Nike, the football team announced that they would be dropping the Redskins name and logo of its all too familiar indigenous chief.

I sat down with our CEO Lance Wain, about this much anticipated and relatively quiet branding process.

Lance, thank you so much for being on the podcast today. We’re really excited to have you.

In many ways, this rebrand of the franchise formerly known as the Washington Redskins has been a really long time coming. As a diehard fan of the team yourself, what was your first reaction to this news?

Well, Clara, thanks for bringing me into this podcast, because this topic is near and dear to my heart. And I actually wasn’t surprised by the timing with everything that’s going on and the financial pressure leading up to this announcement from sponsors and other investors. I was actually waiting for it, if not expecting them to make an announcement on the name.

It seems like fans and corporations alike were not too surprised either, especially given the pressure the team was facing earlier this summer from sponsors like FedEx and Nike, which then led to a thorough review of the brand’s name.

In July, an announcement was then made confirming that the name change was indeed going to happen. And initially, a lot of those leaders were hoping that a new identity would come before the start of the 2020 season. However, everyone then seemed to realize that a proper rebranding process would take much longer than two months remaining until the season opener, which is how we got to this sort of temporary kind of replacement brand of the Washington Football Team.

Is this scenario something that you see play out often in the business world, where leaders take on the rebranding process and are then forced to shift course? And as a branding expert, how do you help business leaders plan appropriately for a rebrand so that they’re allowing for enough time and aren’t skipping important steps?


You know, Clara, it’s not so much about a formula, but it is a process, and I try to provide a rule of thumb in terms of timing and required resources to properly set those expectations. I’ll usually tell clients to be prepared for at least a 6 month strategic and creative engagement to properly define, as well as express the brand, and really start the implementation process, which actually could go on for another 6-12 months, if not more. Especially if you’re doing things in phases, which many of our clients do.

Now as it relates to investment, we also try to make sure that clients understand that an investment in the branding process like this is really starting in the low 6 figures, as a starting point, at least for Grafik.

I do see on occasion, you know, from other business leaders, that they are looking to fast track the branding process, you know, for one reason or another. And look, I’m certainly sensitive to a speed-to-market mentality, I kind of have kind of similar sentiments in that regard. And I will look at things on a case-by-case basis, and there always has to be some flexibility. But what I always tell our clients is we will never compromise what it takes to make sure the branding work is strategically right. And I would say the exact same thing for the Washington Football Team.

We’ve observed that the Washington Football Team has largely been keeping this process under wraps. What do you think is the most challenging part of this process?

You know, a challenge in terms of the process, it’s really going to boil down to is there a commitment to objectively look at this? You know, can they really focus on stripping a lot of the emotions out because brands, especially sports and retail brands, they do evoke feelings, they do trigger certain emotions. Like when people say, “I bleed burgundy and gold,” and I say that all the time, you know, that that’s the emotional reaction that I have to a brand that I’ve loved and the team that I’ve loved, and continue to love.

Now, while it’s important not to strip out sentiment and emotion, any decisions that are made, they really must be driven and based on research. And as best as possible, being objective. So I think that’s a critical challenge there in terms of the process.

The other challenge is really going to be in the outcome, because you have a very passionate fan base. And while it certainly has seen some decline over the last few years, there are many, like myself, who have associated themselves with this organization and with the previous name for decades, if not their entire lives. So any change is really going to be weird, (and) it will probably be a little uncomfortable. And you’re likely not going to be able to please everybody. So getting people to buy into a new name as part of the outcome, it is not going to be a simple task… Unless they start winning, because as I’m sure you’ve heard, winning cures all, right? So I think (that if) they start putting in, you know, wins on Sundays, I think any weirdness will probably go away pretty quickly.

Absolutely, and on that note, when it comes to the importance of research, what types of testing do you think they’re doing behind the scenes right now?

I could be completely wrong here, but I would guess that what they’re doing right now is they’re probably testing some names that they’ve had in the hopper for quite some time. And it could include some focus group testing, but I think probably because of COVID, there’s a lot of online surveys that are being conducted.

Now the reality is there isn’t going to be a perfect name, because there’s so many variables at play here. There probably will be some good names, there will probably be some good, you know, reactions to names. However, there probably will be a lot of ‘buts’ associated with that. So, “Oh, good name, but have you thought about this” or, “Good name, but you may want to consider that.” And that’s okay. I think that’s really just part of the branding process and the research process.

Now, the other type of research they may be doing right now is conducting some financial modeling research to see what naming options, you know, result in certain revenue streams. You know, are there gonna be any potential conflicts? Right now, I know one of the names that they were exploring is the Warriors, obviously, you’ve got the Golden State Warriors in basketball. So, I think they’re trying to weigh, you know, how all this is going to really come together. But what I was relieved to hear is that, instead of trying to rush this through within two months, they really are taking their time now, and I’m assuming that they are doing the proper due diligence, as it relates to finding out what the fans want, what the alumni want, how different communities are going to react. And those communities may also include non football fans, which I think is healthy and probably the right way to approach this.

Absolutely. And other DC teams have gone through this process in the past, most notably the Washington Wizards, who changed their name from the Bullets over a two year period in the 1990s. What do you think the Washington Football Team can learn from other local teams when it comes to using this as an opportunity to retain and grow fan loyalty?

Not only am I a big, huge DC football fan, but I’m also a big basketball fan within the DMV. And I vividly recall when The Bullets were going through the rebranding process around their name, there are teams such as the New Orleans Pelicans and the Charlotte Hornets that changed their name. And they did it without much fanfare, mostly because there wasn’t a lot of brand equity or fan loyalty that had been built up with his organizations over the years.

That clearly wasn’t the case with the Washington Bullets. And it’s certainly not the case now with our local football team. When The Bullets changed their name, the intent of Abe Pollin who was a former owner, it was right based on the timing and what had transpired, you know, both in the city and really on a global level. With gunfire. He made the right call. But the way they went about it, I think they ran a promotion through the Boston Market food chain where fans were really driving the naming process. And unfortunately, where they netted out, there really was no tie into the city or relevant meaning that fans could relate to. And even now, if you look at their visual identity, it has evolved. There is no wizard in their logo or identity, although, I actually like the fact that they’re bringing back elements from the old Bullets identity, which again, I think there’s meaning and there’s sentiment around that.

And even looking at our other sports teams, whether it be the Nationals, whether it be the capitals, tying it back to Washington, and the DMV, I think would be really special. But at the end of the day, whatever the football team does, they’ve got to make it meaningful. They’ve got to make it consistent. And let’s hope that we don’t have to look at this again for at least another hundred years.

In speaking to brand loyalty and social sentiment online, there are a lot of really enthusiastic fans weighing in on social media right now with ideas for new names, logo designs and identities. During a rebrand, how much stock should organizations really be putting into external feedback like this?

Sentiment is really important, especially as relates to, you know, fan involvement. And even though I was not a big believer in terms of how the Bullets did it, again, I think you have to hear the fans, especially if there is a majority of fans that are gravitating towards a certain direction. So I think listening is really, really important, and they should not be discounted. Because at the end of the day, it’s the fans that are buying your product, but there are other stakeholders that have to be heard as well. You know, you’re looking and thinking about alumni who played such a prominent role in building up the brand, you obviously have different levels of business owners that have a stake in the company and certainly have their opinion, you’ve got the sponsors. So I think you really have to look at all the different audiences, make sure you give them the opportunity to voice opinions and hear them out. And then again, let the ultimate research drive or let the research drive the ultimate decision in terms of where you’re going to net out.

Absolutely. And in speaking to that, rumors of the team’s new nickname have been floating around the internet for a few weeks. Between the Red Tails, Red Wolves and Red Hogs, what name stands out to you the most and why?

As a native Washingtonian, I can’t remember the last time I was so excited to see where our current sports teams are at. So I’m trying to find a delicate balance of, yes I am a fan and yes, I do branding for a living… So let me try to be as objective as I can in my response. I think that there’s meaning behind Red Tails with the Tuskegee Airmen, which I think is really important. So, there’s something to be said about, you know, keeping, the meaning behind the name. The Red Wolves, I’m not really sure the meaning behind it, but I am particularly partial to the R, just because I think they actually have done a very nice job of branding. I’ve got a lot of sports paraphernalia that just has the product.

So I’d like to see if there’s a way to keep that as part of the identity. And growing up here, the Hogs obviously means something special, especially during the Superbowl runs of the 80s and early 90s. But what I’m seeing from these options here, (is that) there really isn’t any name that ties into the city itself. And I think this name has an opportunity to galvanize an extremely loyal fan base and do so in a manner that is genuine, if they go about the process the right way. And if it coincides with winning on the field, we could really be known as a true authentic sports city. Very similar to what you see in Boston’s, the Chicago’s and the New York’s of the world. So I’m really pumped to see where things are going right now and I’m really looking forward to many, many years of rooting and success.

**theme music rises**

I’m Clara Shannon, and this is Studio G.


**Creative imagery: The Washington Post

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