The keys to a sports branding hat trick

Intro:

Branding is everywhere. 

You see it every time you watch television, go to the store, or listen to the radio. The brand identity is what makes people want to buy the product. The question is, what makes a good brand? Many brands that have been around for decades are very successful and profitable. Beverage brands like Coca Cola, fashion and perfume brands like Chanel and entertainment brands like Disney are all very popular and influential. They have grown and changed throughout the years but maintain profitability and sway the public. 

In the sporting industry, the team brand is one of the brands that is the most unique and exciting. It sells more than just the product; it sells loyalty, enthusiasm, and the atmosphere that its fans create. There is a mix of historical sports brands such as the MLB’s New York Yankees or the NFL’s Green Bay Packers who have been around since the early 1900s, but there are also newer brands such as the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, who have only been around for four years (2017). 

Many fans stay with teams regardless of the results, such as bad production from individual players or the number of wins and losses from the entire team, making the fans of these sports brands unique in the marketing world.

Staying with a bad team is considered a code of honour because when the team is good, fans feel a sense of pride and say that they were loyal fans and watched when a team was bad. Fans think if they are able to sit through the ups and downs of their favourite team, they will be rewarded for their dedication when the team does well. This gives teams the ability to be profitable even when their product is awful.

If a product is terrible, people will eventually stop buying the product, and the company will lose money, as seen with the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers. That team saw massive financial losses due to a terrible team that saw huge losing streaks and a dwindling fanbase that was not watching the games or buying merchandise. Those factors forced the team to eventually relocate to Winnipeg, where the team became the Jets in 2011.

Sports teams periodically rebrand, creating a new image and a logo but should they? Are there certain qualities that good brands have that makes them marketable and profitable? How can sports teams capitalize on the lessons learned from other industries around branding, and when is it time to rebrand? 

Three significant trends emerge when talking to people in the branding industry: Branding for the future, preserving history, and listening to the fans. A combination of these elements, a branding hat trick, is the way forward for any potential brands looking to become successful and continue to do so.

Branding for the future:

Courtesy of Toronto Raptors/Sid Lee

The concept of being cutting edge is appealing to all. It is what companies and brands in top industries like tech, entertainment, and business strive to be. 

According to Marketing and Creative Specialist Katrina Estacio, many people love to get the hot product or see the top event that is moving forward instead of being stuck in the past. 

Estacio says the brand needs to be sustainable and maintain itself in the public subconscious. If you have a logo that is seen as being outdated, then it gives off a negative connotation with your brand.

Photo courtesy of Katrina Estacio

“[What a successful brand is] in my opinion is something that doesn’t confuse anybody and just embodies what the brand and the company stands for,” Estacio says. “Now another example is the city of Mississauga. They went through a whole redesign just a few years ago, and they did that on their 40th anniversary, and I believe that was a very successful rebrand.”

“And why is that? Because it speaks to what Mississauga is now. The old Mississauga logo spoke to what it was before, and so the thing with municipal rebranding is too is you have to see who your target is. It’s a different target now because it’s more diverse. So, when I look at Mississauga now, it looks like it’s fresh, it’s new, it’s vibrant, it’s exciting, it’s forward thinking.”

In the world of municipal and business brands, designs are made to drive up tourism and increase profit margins. That is similar in the sporting world. The brand is designed to incentivize fans to come to games, buy merchandise and represent the team. Estacio says that no matter the brand, having flexibility, specificity in font, and colour in any brand is vital.

“Your font says something. So that’s why you always have to pick a very appropriate font. A good example is say you have a sports team, and do you think the Toronto Raptors would have a Times New Roman font? No,” Estacio says. “So, like every colour also means something, right? So green, that’s what you always see in environmental logos. Then blue is also so calming. If you see a lot of sports teams, they always have red, yellow and black with the contrast, because that’s bold.”

Understanding what a company wants the brand to be is essential when considering a rebrand. As Estacio mentions, the elements a company uses, such as a font and colour, send specific subtle messages.

Sports brands will portray themselves as being tough and will want to incorporate that into their branding. A team will also look at what resonates the most with its fanbase and will to have branding that fits how the team perceives itself.

Branding for the future was a primary reason why the NBA’s Toronto Raptors decided to conduct a rebrand as part of the ‘We The North’ campaign. The Raptors management tasked branding company Sid Lee with taking a brand that was seemingly built for a different and less relevant audience and moving it into the future.

“The pre-existing logo felt very juvenile and kid-like, and it was getting to a point where it was affecting the public’s perception of the team,” Sid Lee Executive Creative Director Jeffrey Da Silva says in an email. “Not only was this the only team outside of the US but it had this kid’s logo that made it feel like it was an expansion team, causing players to be reluctant to want to come play for Toronto. MLSE wanted to get rid of the cartoonish vibe and have something that would be a better reflection of the team’s ambitions instead.” 

That sense of a “kid’s logo” being connected with the previous Raptors brand is what the team wanted to change. Sports brands must always have an eye to the future to make sure that they do not become outdated and considered “cartoonish”, as Da Silva describes in his email. 

“MLSE gave us a very simple brief: ‘We want to be the coolest team in the NBA,’” De Silva says in his email. “We took that and presented them the idea of, not only rebranding and redesigning their team, but also giving them a platform from which the new design could be launched.”

The idea of being the “coolest team” is easy to say in theory but more challenging in practice. What is “cool” to one person can mean something different for someone else. 

Preserving history:

Photo courtesy of Toronto Maple Leafs Twitter Account

While moving forward is very important, the idea of living off of nostalgia can be a money-maker. For brands that do have a rich past, when going into a rebrand, they must make sure that they do not sway far away from their historical roots. 

Historical team sports brands like the Toronto Maple Leafs, while always looking to the future, feel a sense of commitment to staying true to who they are. When talking to Abby Forsyth, Assistant Marketing Manager of the Maple Leafs, Toronto Argos and Toronto Marlies, in a video call, she says that those team brands want to stay rooted in who they feel they are.

Photo courtesy of Abby Forsyth

“So, there are some things that we always want to stay consistent and the big one on the Maple Leafs side is that our team is really rooted in blue and white. That’s something that we’re really proud of, that we’re really connected with our history,” Forsyth says. “So, I would say it’s a balancing act between the times that makes sense to change things up, but also staying true to our brand, and how our fans recognize it, and how our fans connect to it.”

For some, like Uni Watch founder Paul Lukas, looking at the uniform and the sports brand is a childhood passion that transcends who is actually wearing the uniform. Lukas says the uniqueness of the sports brand is so different compared to other brands.

Photo courtesy of Mary Bakija

“In the sports world, the product, which is the players, and the quality of that product is changing all the time, players get traded, they retire or they leave the team via free agency or they get injured or whatever,” Lukas says. “And so, your team can be very good one year and very bad the next year. But most, you know, with some exceptions certainly but most fans, remain loyal to whoever is wearing that uniform. That’s a really unusual and very powerful form of brand loyalty, and that’s something you can’t replicate anywhere else in the consumer landscape.”

In the sporting world, the uniform is a big part of fan loyalty, according to Lukas. In many cases, the uniform becomes more prominent than the athletes who wear it, and Lukas gives an example of two New York baseball teams, the New York Mets and New York Yankees.

“I’m a Mets fan. Let’s also say that I hate the Yankees, which in fact I do. If the entire Mets team were traded today, All 25 guys for 25 guys on the Yankees. Who would I root for tomorrow, and to me the answer is obvious, I would root for the 25 guys who are now wearing Mets uniforms, even though I hated them yesterday,” Lukas says. “Right, which makes no sense. But that’s the power of uniform, and that is that is the very unusual form of brand loyalty that a uniform can provide.”

The longstanding history of a brand is not relegated to the sporting world but can be found in all sorts of different companies. For example, take the fashion and perfume company, Chanel.

Chanel has been around since 1910 and released its famous “Chanel No.5” in 1921. The perfume was designed to capture the scent of Coco Chanel. That has persisted throughout the years as people who buy the product look to emulate Coco Chanel’s style. 

Since its initial release, the product has gone through few changes and has stayed the same despite many other competitors entering the marketplace. Even the perfume has not changed, which has given many who buy the product a sense of comfort.

The Chanel company has felt no need to update its look as it continues to maintain their position as a top beauty brand. 

Listening to the fans:

Courtesy of the Toronto Raptors

Companies and brands should look to connect with their fans, according to MLSE’s Abby Forsyth. She says that they should understand what the interests are of the people they are looking to connect with. Sid Lee’s Jeffery De Silva says this was a top priority when the agency was working on the rebrand for the Raptors.

“From the beginning, our inspiration was to embrace the negativity and shortcomings of being the only Canadian team in the league,” De Silva says in his email. “We’ve always felt like outsiders and wondered what it would look like if we actually embraced that outsider status. This quickly took the shape of ‘We The North’. It was a declaration about our confidence as outsiders – we were our own entity with our own approach to basketball and we were proud of it.” 

With the specific example being the Sid Lee campaign with the Raptors, it was important for the agency to share the feeling of being “Toronto people.” 

“As the individuals working on it, we ourselves were Toronto people who understood the truths of our culture and knew what would resonate with the people in Toronto,” De Silva says in an email. “When we presented ‘We The North’ to the client, they were in love with it immediately, so we didn’t need to consult with players or management.” 

Completing a rebrand with a major brand like the Raptors without consultation from the company or its employees is an interesting tactic. When looking at other brands who are looking to rebrand themselves, consultation with management and focus groups are considered valuable information to a company looking to take the next steps for their brand. 

They look to get feedback from their fanbase to determine their next steps in the form of focus groups, seminars and polls. With Sid Lee, the background the agency had about “Toronto people” help the agency understand what it could use in the rebrand of the Raptors. Looking to the other sporting brands in MLSE, namely the Toronto Argonauts and Toronto Maple Leafs, the philosophies according to Abby Forsyth are different, and the way to approach each brand is not copy and paste.

“I think, the more holistic view is that the way we approach the Leafs and Argos sometimes can be very similar…and then sometimes they’re very opposite. On the Argo side, it’s not a brand that needs awareness,” Forsyth says. “It’s the oldest sport and our oldest team but it is a brand that, because there’s so much competition in Toronto, a lot of the objective is to really connect with a new fan base…getting more people into the games, getting more people connected with Canadian football.”

Forsyth says the Leafs are different from the Argos because the Leafs are not looking to increase attendance. 

“There isn’t that sort of demand concern on the Leafs’ side, it’s actually pretty much the exact opposite, there’s too much demand, often we can’t get people in the building,” Forsyth says. “We can’t make hockey more accessible because there just aren’t enough tickets, there just isn’t enough access to hockey for the Leafs in Toronto.”

With any company, customer feedback is essential. While winning championships is the ultimate goal for the players on a team, management and ownership look more toward how the fanbase reacts to their players’ personal decisions. 

This hyper-focus on leadership and the decisions they make is the most prominent in sports, where attendance at events can fluctuate based on the team’s performance. It is the most noticeable to see when a team is not connecting with its fanbase as the audience for games dwindles in comparison to teams that actively seek out participation from their fans and also have bad performance. 

Teams like the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers, NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies and MLB’s Montreal Expos all saw a drop in fan attendance as management failed to engage with their fanbase properly. As a result, all three teams were forced to relocate to new locations.

The Toronto Raptors were not the only team that listened to the fans when the brand changed. In the NBA, the Charlotte basketball team was going through a rebrand but with a twist. The team management decided to change the name from the Charlotte Bobcats to the Hornets. However, from 1988 to 2002, Charlotte had another NBA team called the Hornets that fans loved.

So, when the team made the change in 2015, the fans responded positively with an increase in attendance and merchandise sales. Even though the team’s performance was worse than the 2014 season, the rebrand of the overall look from the team’s jersey, its name and the court allowed the Hornets to move up from rankings. They were 25th in the NBA in attendance in 2014; by the end of the 2015 season, they were 19th, and they also increased overall merchandise sales by 300 per cent.

However, there have been other cases where a team conducts a rebrand that does not go well. An example of this is with the Toronto Blue Jays. After the championship seasons of 1992 and 1993, the team fell back into a perennial third-place in the brutal AL East. In 2003, in an effort to stand out from its divisional competition in the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the team decided that it was time for a rebrand.

Brandid, a division of the advertising agency MacLaren McCann, was hired to create a new brand with two keys in mind from the Blue Jays management. Focus on the bird and the word “Jays.” The agency designed a brand that was released to the public at the end of the 2003 season.

However, fans were not open to the idea as they felt it took away from some of the better aspects of the team, including the “Blue Jays” name and the Canadian maple leaf that the jerseys used to have. Those changes and the fact that the team did not play any better in the new uniforms, caused many fans to call this the most hated Blue Jays jersey.

It took until 2012 for the jersey to revert to the “classic” look. Fans were much happier with the new logo, as indicated by an 80 per cent increase in sales of team hats.

Listening to fans is not just something that only sports brands do. The most famous example of a brand listening to its fans and making a change is old Coke versus new Coke. 

In 1985, Coca Cola decided to make a change to its recipe for Coke. At the time, the company was lagging behind other competitors in the drink market such as Pepsi. So, the company made the change in April of 1985. 

However, many voiced outrage at the change to the recipe, which most closely resembled the taste of its rival Pepsi. More than 40,000 calls and letters were sent to Coca Cola after the change. Stunningly, only 79 days later, on July 11, the company reversed its decision and re-released its original formula of Coke dubbed “Coca Cola Classic.” Pepsi, in response, declared it had won the Pepsi challenge and marketed itself as the better-tasting drink.

After the switch was announced, it became such a massive news story that a US senator called it “a meaningful moment in U.S. history.” In the end, Coca Cola was able to double both Pepsi and “New Coke” in sales over the following six months after its reintroduction of “Coca Cola Classic.”

Conclusion:

A sporting brand is so unique in the marketing world because there is not one way for it to be successful. So, what makes a good brand? 

As Katrina Estacio says, a successful brand is “something that doesn’t confuse anybody and just embodies what the brand and the company stands for.”

When asking if a company should do a rebrand, the answer is dependent on the situation. For historical brands like Coca Cola and the Toronto Blue Jays, the companies returned to their initial brands after disastrous rebranding decisions.

The time to rebrand is when the company feels that the brand does not associate with its direction. As seen with the Toronto Raptors, when they felt the brand was too “kid like” they decided to bring in the Sid Lee Agency and make a change to enhance their look.

In addition, branding for the future, preserving history, and listening to the fans, are the necessary ingredients to create a successful marketing rebrand that remains popular for months and years afterwards.

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