Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What's in a Name?

Sports teams are branded by their nicknames. While geography is an influence on the brand image of a team, the nickname is leveraged more extensively in brand strategy. Selection of brand colors, logo development, and creation of brand characters such as a mascot are usually representations of a team's nickname. Thus, a team's nickname becomes more than an identifier; it is also a marketing asset that can influence brand liking and attract fans to identify with a team. Great care must be exercised in managing brand reputation given the marketing impact of team nicknames.

A Threat to Brand Value
One of the most sensitive branding issues in sports is use of team nicknames and other branding elements that contain Native American references or imagery. Brands like the Atlanta  Braves, Cleveland Indians, and Washington Redskins have a heritage that predates recent debates about the acceptability of their brand names. The debate has not been limited to professional sports. The NCAA addressed the issue by calling on its members whose teams had nicknames with Native American references to change or be prohibited from competing in NCAA championship events (with exceptions made in cases in which a Native American nickname had historical relevance to the institution).

To this point, the general position taken by professional sports leagues and teams on the issue is "we hear you, but we are not changing." That stance could be threatened as members of Congress have joined in with certain special interest groups calling for elimination of the use of Native American nicknames that contain negative imagery. The Washington Redskins in particular have been the target of calls for change on this issue. Many sportswriters and media outlets have indicated they will no longer refer to the Redskins in their coverage of the Washington NFL team.

A Complicated Issue
Although current attitudes and publicity about the suitability of Native American nicknames in sports suggests the time is right for change, eliminating brands like Redskins is easier said than done. An article written by John Rowady, founder and president of sports marketing agency rEvolution, explains that a name change would be a more complicated matter than it appears. One issue is the cost to implement a team re-branding effort. It is estimated that a complete re-branding of a team like the Washington Redskins could cost $15 million. A second issue is how a re-brand would affect relationships with stakeholders, most notably sponsors and fans. Rowady cites in his article that a survey of Washington Redskins fans found overwhelming support for keeping the current name. Likewise, sponsors partner with a team to associate their brand with the team brand. What if the team brand changes drastically and no longer has appeal for a sponsor? The point Rowady makes in his article is that the cost to re-brand the Washington Redskins would likely be greater than the costs of new logo development, signage, and marketing campaigns.

What is a Brand?
In Chapter 5 of Sports Marketing, four roles of a brand are described:

  1. Identity
  2. Image
  3. Promise
  4. Relationship
The first two roles of a brand are more obvious and the focal points in the discussion of whether teams like the Washington Redskins should re-brand. However, the latter two roles of a brand should factor into consideration of whether re-branding should occur. A brand makes promises, some explicit and many that are implicit. For a pro sports team brand, implicit promises could include "good community citizen," "caring," and "socially responsible." A team must evaluate its brand against the promises it makes to determine if it is delivering on those promises. Also, brands serve as connectors with customers and other stakeholders to form relationships. If a brand is too controversial or has negative associations it can have the unintended effect of  turning off the very people, groups, or companies with which it wants to have long term relationships.

Should the Washington Redskins, Atlanta Braves, and Cleveland Indians re-brand? Why or why not?