The previous name long-held by the Washington, D.C.-based team was called into question amid a nationwide reckoning with the racism that is still lurking in plain sight in household brands and sports franchises. Washington had dismissed previous calls to change the name despite the pain felt by indigenous communities, but finally gave in. After punting the decision for a year and suiting up as The Washington Football Team, the organization recently announced it was rebranding as The Washington Commanders.
With the new name and brand reveal, the team refused to issue an apology to the indigenous communities that were hurt by the previous moniker as a part of the reveal of the new team name; the Commanders instead released an odd, storyless hype video. Although a new name is certainly a step in the right direction of correcting the exploitation and misappropriation of Native American stereotypes, what meaning does “Commander” even bring? (Spoiler alert: none.) And was a militaristic figure really the right choice to advance the conversation? Reeeeally? …
This comes at a time when the NFL as a whole continues to face a scrutinous awakening regarding racial inequities in a league whose player population is 75% non-white, while only a few organizations have non-white coaches. The organization missed out on a tremendous opportunity to correct the narrative and be an authentic beacon of change on the field and on the global stage, but instead opted for a tone deaf, empty approach that did not do much for either correcting their racist past or inspiring a new era for the current (and now ostensibly nonexistent future) fanbase.
Here’s where we see they went wrong, and how your brand can avoid a fumble with a rebrand.
Building a great brand is no small feat… and it can’t be done alone. Just like a beautifully orchestrated football play, it requires everyone understanding their assignment and doing their job. Strategy, design, and verbal expression all work together to make it look easy, but that comes with practice and involving the right players. Washington involved talented partners including Nike on uniform design, but as an outsider looking in, it doesn’t seem clear who was calling the plays.
The Washington Commanders, aside from choosing a militaristic name as the path forward (again, why???), there is no connective tissue to bring forth a meaningful story, a reason for being, or a reason to believe in besides “we got in trouble and need a swift fix.” For an organization in desperate need of shared values, they missed the opportunity to give players, personnel, and fans a “north star” to believe in.
When rebranding, setting a clear vision anchored in a value system is imperative—it’s an opportunity to chart a new course for your brand. It should be a movement toward something greater, not a movement away from something you’re trying to snuff out. Consumers in any category vote with their dollars, and failing to read the cultural context can cost this franchise millions in revenue. Beyond that, prized players seeking to take control of their professional destiny have a choice of where they land. To reinvigorate a successful franchise, Washington needs to think beyond new jerseys and fat paychecks.
At Spectacle, we often begin with a “Start With Why” exercise modeled after the Simon Sinek principle—where we drive to clarity on the reasons for being of a brand, so there is a clear, stated purpose and story to anchor the full brand expression.
A brand is only as strong as its stakeholder community. A classic branding challenge is how to attract new consumers without alienating loyalists. If you’re investing in a rebrand, it’s critical to enlist outside perspectives—from your most loyal fans and the next generation. If you want to build relevance with a future fan base, you have to involve them in the conversation and understand the cultural context. While there may have been a naming contest, focus groups, and other consumer touch points, the passion and the voice of the fanbase is not present—there’s no through line, no pulse, no clear tie to the loyal voices that ring out of FedEx Field. This move seemed like yet another case of “What Snyder wants, Snyder gets.”
Traditionally, football team allegiance most often aligned with proximity. Nowadays, with weakening ties to hometowns and cross-country movement, many football fans are “free agents” and are more open to aligning themselves (or at least pay more attention) to a team that is memorable, even beyond their game record. Are the Washington Commanders, the team situated in our nation’s capital, going to be top of mind? Nope.
Brands don’t exist in a vacuum. Full stop.
The rebrand emerged following rampant allegations and widespread examination of the inherent racism and white supremacy baked into the fibers of our society.
Because of the tenuous atmosphere that exists around the NFL and the Washington franchise in particular, the rebrand and subsequent announcement came across as tone deaf, and without a clear point of view to actively denounce racism and craft a new, inspiring message to set a clear, new direction for the franchise.
Finally, taking the time to get a rebrand right is crucial, and ensuring that each touch point of your brand is cohesive and reinforces the broader mission and vision.
The Commanders’ brand feels disjointed—and it shows: from the name, to the uniforms, to the central messaging around who the team is and what they stand for. Furthermore, the rollout of the new brand was downright messy. This was a time to signal that change was in the air, with fans anxiously awaiting the future of their franchise. What could have been a huge opportunity to inject new life, energy and investment into a team that desperately needs it, as one of the teams who consistently trails the NFC East Division, the rollout amounted to a disjointed, lackluster display that generated little buzz. The rollout seemed hastily thrown together like a bad two-minute drill that came up short. (Which, hey, maybe does reflect the new brand after all!)