‘No name but team’
Washington Football Team embarks on massive brand transition
Marcus Stephenson is living his dream.
After a nearly 15-year career in sports entertainment marketing and content (including stints with World Wrestling Entertainment and the Columbus Blue Jackets NHL team), Stephenson joined the Washington Football Team as its vice president of digital marketing and programming just one year ago — ahead of what will be the biggest brand transition in the 88-year history of the former Washington Redskins franchise and perhaps the entire NFL.
“As cool as everything else I’ve done, this is the peak for me,” Stephenson says. “The magic of the NFL will never go away for me.”
That magic could have been tainted during tumultuous times for the team. The Washington Post ran articles this summer revealing sexual harassment and verbal abuse allegations within the Ashburn-based National Football League franchise. And amid a growing national movement for racial justice, calls for the team to drop the Redskins name grew too loud to ignore. Stadium name sponsor FedEx notified the team that unless it changed its name, which many saw as derogatory to Native Americans, FedEx would pull its branding from the stadium.
On July 13, the team announced it was retiring the Redskins team name and logo.
But Stephenson views it all as an opportunity to make lasting changes at the franchise.
The temporarily named Washington Football Team is accepting input for branding suggestions through its new Washington Journey website. A passion project for Stephenson, the site has already received tens of thousands of submissions from fans. There still isn’t a firm timeline on when a new team name or logo might be announced, says Stephenson, as the team is still in its initial phase of gathering input. Fans, the community and the team’s partners will ultimately have a say in what to officially call the new incarnation of the former Redskins.
On top of branding challenges, Stephenson has also had to get creative with digital approaches to engaging fans, while the team plays to empty bleachers at FedExField due to the pandemic.
Starting with its Sept. 13 season opener versus the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Football Team (which has the eighth-highest NFL team valuation at $3.5 billion) is playing its 2020 season home games without spectators — but that didn’t stop them from getting the season opener win. On Sept. 22, Washington Football Team President Jason Wright said that the team wouldn’t yet welcome fans back to the stadium after seeing sports gatherings in Europe causing outbreaks, as well as delays in COVID-19 data from teams that hosted fans during the first few weeks of the season.
“I am eager for in-person viewing to return … but not at the expense of public safety,” Wright wrote in a blog post. “As a result, we are reviewing the data each week to see what is happening with other teams, looking at national and local infection rates, and reviewing state and local guidelines for safety. Right now, it’s still a ‘no.’”
To keep fans engaged, the team has launched more digital content, including pre- and post-game broadcasts, on-demand content, increased social media engagement and a virtual draft experience. They’re also riding a high after locking down new Head Coach Ron Rivera and overall No. 2 draft pick Chase Young, a defensive end.
“As long as we’re planning and detailed in our approach, we know that we’re going to do what it takes to have FedExField rocking next season,” Stephenson says. “We’re pretty pumped about that, and fans are responding.”
Virginia Business: What had you heard about the team before joining? Were the Washington Post stories about workplace harassment news to you?
Marcus Stephenson: To be honest, I did research. I’ve been in marketing and content for 15 years. I was referred to this position by a former colleague at the Columbus Blue Jackets. They told me some of the things that happened here. I did my own research. I felt honored, honestly, at that point. I felt empowered when I came in for the interview because if I didn’t get the answers I wanted, I wasn’t going to agree. I felt really good about what was told to me: “This is a new era. You’re going to be part of the change agent.” I wanted to be one of them mostly because of the legacy of this franchise … but then also, the NFL is everything to me. … As cool as everything else I’ve done, this is the peak for me. The magic of the NFL will never go away for me.
VB: What has it been like to join the team amid what will likely be the biggest branding change in NFL history?
Stephenson: First and foremost, it’s the pace. I think … doing something in months that previously usually takes years to do is ultimately what the challenge is. The philosophy of when you’re doing it for the right reasons and the right intentions, it empowers you to work fast, work hard, work smart. Because I came from an agency environment, I have that kind of mentality to work overnight, to think overnight and to make decisions quickly based on data and research. It made this decision to move in this direction easy because it combined data with … [taking] fans on a journey with us. … When you have that opportunity to be authentic and real to any audience, it’s hard not to get up in the morning for that.
VB: What has fan momentum looked like since the preseason was canceled due to COVID-19?
Stephenson: This offseason obviously was an extremely challenging time for not just our organization, not just the NFL, but everybody in general, an unprecedented type of summer that all of us have had. It started at the NFL Draft, where we all had to think very quickly right after we were quarantined [about how we were] going to pull off a national event like this. … We were able to build a virtual draft experience that was trailblazing for the league. … That gave us a lot of encouragement, and our fans encouragement, that, “These guys are doing some things differently here. Let’s ride this out. There are some reservations, but let’s ride this out.”
Combined with our offseason luck of Head Coach Ron Rivera coming in and then also [landing the overall] No. 2 draft pick … the work was easy for us because we capitalized on that. We just had to be ready.
VB: What kind of response have you gotten from asking fans to send in their own team-branding suggestions?
Stephenson: We’ve had thousands upon thousands, in the double-digit thousands, of submissions. We know that people care very much about this legacy. People care very much about this franchise and where it’s going. … We can’t be on coast mode. We have to be careful. … That’s what [WashingtonJourney.com] is designed for, is to have something every single day and include fans every single day so that on a macro level, if you want to give your own pitch, “Mad Men”-style, you can do that, but if on a micro level, if you just have a logo idea or just the thought, you can give that, too. We’re constantly looking. It feels magical right now.
VB: How and when will the branding decision be made?
Stephenson: We are going to take our time, as long as it takes. If Washington Football Team sticks — that will be informed by data. It will always be informed by data and real honest answers from our fans, our community and our partners. … Changing a brand is not [done] overnight. You can’t have it done in three weeks; you can’t have it done in six months. We’ve got to be diligent. Right now, it’s the intake phase. We’re analyzing all of the data that we have right now, all of the pitches, all of the submissions, all of the social listening data that we have, what our partners are telling us. Ultimately, I can’t guarantee that any one submission is actually going to be picked because it’s going to be a group effort, but I will say that where we’re at right now in the stage is where we want to be, and moving forward, you’re going to see things move a little more rapidly.
VB: Will any part of the former Redskins branding remain, including the colors?
Stephenson: To maintain its authenticity, everything is truly up in the air. Now, on a foundational level, we are the burgundy and gold, and that has stood for us for a hundred years. We are hoping that if fans want it, that sticks with us for the next hundred years. I’ve said this before and I mean it, if I were to tell you absolutely 100% we’re sticking with the burgundy and gold, that would be us making that decision and not us collectively making that decision. That’s the important part that we need to take from this, is that [team management is] not making the ultimate decision. We are collectively. If what you’re going to see moving down the road, if that feedback … turns into a different color scheme, then that’s something that we all made a conscientious decision together.
VB: What happens to all of the old Redskins merchandise and branding? Will the team continue to profit from it?
Stephenson: No, all merchandise related to the organization’s previous nickname has been removed. Part of our journey and what we’re going to show on WashingtonJourney.com is the replacing of any stadium [branding] or any on-field [branding] changing into our new brand. You probably saw that [this season] with the end zone and then the padding around the field. It was beautiful. Our stadium looked, in a weird way, brand new. That’s what you should expect to see. We are not erasing our legacy. When you see throwback clips of John Riggins, you’re going to see throwback clips of John Riggins. We’re not erasing that. It’s impossible, and we’d be crazy to want to erase that. We’re not an expansion team. We are the Washington Football Team that has been here, established in 1932. [Editor’s note: The team was founded as the Boston Braves in 1932 and moved to Washington as the Redskins in 1937.]
VB: What are new initiatives and projects you’re trying out to keep fans engaged while they’re away from FedExField?
Stephenson: It’s been an incredible challenge. … We use it as an opportunity. … We have a whole new radio crew, Julie Donaldson coming in, the first woman to be a full time [announcer] at the NFL on the radio booth. … We’re creating also on-demand content so you don’t miss anything. If you want those interactive updates, you can get them. If you want the walk-ins of our players, you can get them. Then, at the same time, if you want to just sit there and watch it, you can. … We have Tiffany Blackmon, who’s formerly of the NFL Network, hosting our pregame show with Santana Moss, a Washington Football legend.
Then, we have Scott Jackson in our post-game … along with … future hall of famer London Fletcher. Then, you’re anchored by our game day crew of Julie Donaldson, Bram Weinstein and then legend DeAngelo Hall. It’s a new … diverse group that speaks to today’s audience that is rallying around what our brand is and what we’re looking to do in this new era.
You’re only going to see more. The next step is our launch of our unfiltered programming, which we launched [in September], the first one being The Beat … that is solely digital, caters to a national audience, and is really focused around what we call the 360-degree view of a pro, so food, fashion, entertainment, lifestyle, pop culture, and gaming. … We’re doing some innovative stuff here, all by leveraging digital as a distribution platform.
VB: What will it be like to get fans back in the stadium post-pandemic?
Stephenson: We’re already getting started. … Obviously, it’s helping with the team’s new energy … but from a digital marketing perspective, … it’s tracking affinity. It’s using data, understanding what our future customers’ mindsets might be so that when we are putting them in a segment, for instance, or marketing to them via our own channels or paid channels, we’re talking to them in a way that they would want to be talked to, based on where they are in a customer journey.
We’re excited about where we are there because as long as we’re planning and detailed in our approach, we know that we’re going to do what it takes to have FedExField rocking next season, led by Head Coach Ron Rivera, and our new era of the Washington Football Team. We’re pretty pumped about that, and fans are responding. We’re seeing that in some of our social media metrics. We’re seeing that in our website visits. We’re near the top in the league in all of those metrics right now, based on fan interests.
VB: When did the team’s metrics start improving?
Stephenson: The boom definitely started in January with Coach Rivera’s hire, but then trailed off a little bit. Then, as you would expect, peaked again [after] Chase Young, our [overall] No. 2 draft pick. Then, it’s sustained, beginning in training camp all the way to obviously seeing a huge boom [after the season opener win against the Eagles]. We’ve maintained and climbed and not gone back into a valley. We’re seeing encouraging signs from metrics, visits, time spent from a website perspective, engagement rate from a social perspective. Things are only climbing.
VB: How has the organization dealt with marketing efforts around the team’s temporary name?
Stephenson: [We launched] our very first advertising campaign around the Washington Football Team. We’re calling it “No Name But Team.” … It’s a unification message that no matter what, we’re together, we’re going through this together. It’s evident by the journey that we’re taking, both figuratively and literally. What it’s meant to do is unify everyone in the [Washington, D.C.-Virginia-Maryland region]. We love it. Our fans have gravitated towards it. … We’re really excited because, in every capacity that you can imagine, “team” means more than just our stars. It’s our entire 53-man roster. … It’s everyone who this franchise has meant even just a little bit to. Our job is to reach into the hearts of our fans, our community and our partners, and to pull out what makes this franchise special and put it back into a both push-and-pull fashion for this campaign.