Hail to the … what now?
Under pressure from FedEx and other big sponsors, the Washington Redskins management announced in July that the NFL team will retire its name and mascot and rebrand itself away from divisive Native American imagery.
The $3.4 billion organization, the seventh-most valuable franchise in the NFL, is now known as the “Washington Football Team,” with a fresh name and look tentatively to be unveiled in 2021.
Branding experts in Virginia applaud the strategy. “I’m relieved that they didn’t just pop out with a new name,” says Kelly O’Keefe, founding partner and CEO of Richmond-based Brand Federation. “That would have been a billion-dollar mistake.”
O’Keefe served as brand adviser for the University of North Dakota when it changed its moniker from the Fighting Sioux to the Fighting Hawks in 2015. “We gathered input from everyone, including the tribal community of North Dakota, and the Redskins should do the same,” he says, although the research will likely take every bit of the year — and the rebranding will cost millions. “It’s barely enough time.”
Washington will have to do its own research and convene focus groups of fans and major stakeholders, adds Vann Graves, executive director of the VCU Brandcenter. “I consider this a cultural correction. It’s not just rebranding a sports team; it’s addressing the fact that the team helped for years to normalize a negative stereotype.”
Meanwhile, Rob Wooten, creative director at Charlottesville’s Convoy Branding Studio, advises the team to be bold: “I wouldn’t try to find a safer version of what they currently have, like the Warriors. I’d do something completely new.”
Graves and Wooten recommend a full refresh, including new team colors: “Get rid of the idea of red altogether. It ties the brand to its old history,” Wooten advises.
But O’Keefe, a professor and former managing director at the VCU Brandcenter, recommends that the team should follow focus groups’ advice. “I’d ask the Native Americans what they think of retaining the colors. Right now, I don’t think the colors are the issue.”
In any case, the old brand will never completely go away, O’Keefe adds. “It’s a passionate audience. If fans are attracted to a sports team, you’re going to see it everywhere: on license plates, stickers, clothing.”