Marketing

The Washington Commanders’ work is just beginning

Love it or hate it, the new branding gives the franchise an opportunity to shed past associations.
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Washington Commanders

· 5 min read

The Washington Football Team will now be known as the Washington Commanders. Now comes the hard part.

For the team that for decades went by a racist moniker, the official announcement of a new name marks the end of a search that began in earnest 18 months ago.  But it also marks a beginning of sorts, as the football team looks to shed some of the controversy that’s clouded the franchise.

“It’s about turning the page to a new chapter,” head coach Ron Rivera said in an interview on the Today show Wednesday. “We’ve had so many things that have happened that have been unfortunate, but as we go forward, what I’m trying to do is to get us to [say], ‘hey—buy into judging us now and to where we’re headed, as opposed to where we’ve been.’”

The work is only just beginning, brand experts say, as the franchise must now determine how best to harness the new name and continue telling a compelling story to fans ahead of the fall football season.

“At the end of the day, the name is an empty vessel for the fans and the community who rally behind the sport to fill,” Ross Clugston, the chief creative officer of brand agency Superunion in North America, told Marketing Brew.

Name games

Changing a brand’s name can be a tricky business, but the Washington Commanders faced the added challenge of addressing the ugly reason for the change in the first place.

The team’s original name is a derogatory slur with a racist, violent history going back to at least the 19th century. Hundreds of Native American organizations and tribes, civil rights organizations, religious institutions, and lawmakers have long called for the name to be changed. While team owner Dan Synder had been adamant that the team would “never change its name,” that changed in 2020 after public and corporate pressure intensified, and major advertisers and sponsors threatened to bolt, including FedEx, which owns the naming rights to the team’s stadium. The franchise finally dropped the racist moniker in July 2020 and began an effort to find a new one.

There are other serious challenges for the organization in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment, verbal abuse, and a work environment defined by bullying and fear. Several former employees of the franchise participated in a roundtable with members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee this week about their experiences working for the football team. At the roundtable, lawmakers and former employees pressured the NFL to "release a report about the team’s history of sexual harassment and its sexist, hostile workplace culture," per the AP.

Rebrands can’t erase an organization’s history, but they can signify a discrete turning point for an organization, said Neeru Paharia, an associate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

“On some level, for newer consumers, it does enable them to turn the page more easily, and psychologically, for everyone else, it is a signal of change,” Paharia said.

Bring in the fans

Instead of starting from scratch, the Washington Commanders retained elements of their previous brand, including their iconic burgundy and gold colors.

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“Keeping the parts that still allow the brand to have sort of a connection over time for their fans is really smart,” said Aaron Hall, group director of naming at the brand and strategy firm Siegel+Gale. “You change the part that's problematic, but the new brand still has ties to the past—the good parts of the past.”

Before landing on the Commanders, the franchise consulted with Native American organizations, sought out fan submissions (collecting more than 40,000 names, according to the team) and tested some in market research groups. It also hired a chief creative and digital officer, a position unique to the franchise, to help steer the rebrand.

Commanders, intended to signify service and leadership, won out, team president Jason Wright said on Today, and the slanted stripes surrounding the W in the logo are “inspired by military rank insignia.”

Hall believes the name has broad appeal. It may not be the most inspired selection—Paharia described it as a “very generic, safe choice that is palatable and won't offend anybody.”

What’s next

Choosing a new name doesn’t mean the Washington Commanders can or should ignore damage caused by their prior name, said Ray Halbritter, the Oneida Indian Nation Representative and the leader of the Change the Mascot campaign that had pushed for the old name to be dropped. While the name change was a “victory,” he said, continued acknowledgement is necessary.

“Today’s announcement by the Washington NFL team should not be treated as a simple rebranding,” Halbritter said in a statement. “Depicting this as a mere rebranding rather than righting a wrong is another indignity.”

The Washington Commanders have taken some steps so far, including its previously announced promise to not use any Native American imagery or iconography in its new brand identity, as well as a ban on headdresses and face paint at its stadium. It remains to be seen what additional moves the franchise makes.

“There is still really a large effort that needs to take place to change the culture of using these mascots in this sort of stereotypical and very negative way,” said Nola Agha, a professor of sports management at the University of San Francisco, pointing to teams like the Kansas City Chiefs, the Atlanta Braves, and Chicago Blackhawks, all of which use Native American imagery, mascots, and names. “I don't know what Washington has planned, but changing the name is definitely the first step.”

Another step is getting fans old and new to buy into the rebrand. While some of that brand-building begins now, most will have to wait until players are back on the field in the fall.

“If they start winning, then this brand has real potential,” Hall said.

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