originally published in the washington post
jason wright describes it as a “reintroduction” of the washington nfl team. a new name a new look. maybe a new beginning.
On Wednesday, the team president will help finally reveal his new identity, the culmination of an extensive rebranding that spanned 18 months and remained largely shrouded in secrecy.
For years, team owner Daniel Snyder vowed that he would never — “never” in all caps — get rid of the Redskins name, which many Native Americans and others considered racist. But in 2020, amid a global reckoning over racism and police brutality following the murder of George Floyd, he finally relented. Pressure from sponsors and politicians, who threatened to walk away from lucrative partnerships and prevent the team from returning to D.C. from suburban maryland, sparked change.
The 87-year-old team nickname was retired and the temporary Washington football team name adopted, setting in motion the latest NFL rebranding.
however, washington’s “reintroduction” is unlike any other. the franchise did not move, like many others that underwent name changes. It didn’t change owners either. he had years of great success, but the most recent ones were mostly losses, litigation, and confusion off the field.
“This is a complete name change of what the team stands for,” said Marc Reeves, a former NFL and Nike design ad marketing executive. “They’re at a really interesting point and I’d love to know what’s going on there because it’s tough. you have to build on your narrated history, but that narrated history was a long time ago and your most recent history has been affected by many of their own actions.”
the rebranding of washington has generated a mixture of anger and hope: anger at the change that many resisted and hope for a more successful future. it has also given rise to futile persecution. fans searched for trademark applications, domain purchases, and any little clues, real or contrived, that might have led them to the new name. interviews with alumni and team executives have only fanned the flames of the conspiracy.
were they really the final eight contenders in the video, as co-owner tanya snyder said? Or did she speak badly?
did franchise leader joe theismann confirm that the name is commanders in that interview? Or was it a distraction planted by the team?
what about the trademark application for markmonitor, a registrar the nfl has used for other teams? or that washington admirals web address that redirected to the washington website?
On the eve of the reveal, speculation was heightened when a local NBC affiliate news helicopter spotted a banner of the commanders hanging in a window at FedEx Field.
however, the lengthy rebranding also raised a simple question: why has it taken so long?
turns out a brand is similar to an nfl roster: good ones can’t be rebuilt overnight, and in washington’s case, the work likely cost millions of dollars, a complicated process riddled with hurdles legal and creative challenges.
research and bureaucracy
Hired just a month after the team decided to drop its previous name, Wright has led the rebranding from the start. Throughout the process, he often wrote to fans on the team’s website to offer a peek behind the curtain, showing meager details to spark intrigue. the few that he offered: the team would keep its characteristic burgundy and gold colors. but he would not use the name of warriors or any other that had Native American ties or imagery.
“It’s so much more than just saying, ‘Hey, this name is cool,'” said Jeff Eagles, a branding expert who spent 10 years as a designer for adidas. “There is the story of who you have been, there is who you are now, and there is also what you aspire to be. a good identity ties all those things together.”
wright and the team sought a clean break from their previous controversial name and wanted an identity that embodied the fanbase and d.c. region.
“how do they represent something that is supposed to unify all the elements of a community?” reeves said. “That’s one of the best things about the sport. …it’s a unifier in a way that most things, whether it’s politics, whether it’s age, whether it’s socioeconomics, bring people together in ways that other brands, other consumer-facing identities can’t. so it is a great responsibility.”
But discovering that identity isn’t simply a matter of brainstorming or sifting through fan submissions.
In his last address to fans, Wright informed them that Washington will not be Redwolves, a fan favorite from the beginning of the process. it would be too difficult and expensive to secure the rights, he said, so the team crossed it off the list.
The legal process is usually the most complex and time-consuming of any rebranding. It went to the former Tampa Bay Devil Stripes, who changed their name in 2007 in hopes of a fresh start.
“We wanted a different name and it wasn’t available,” said darcy raymond, the team’s former vice president of marketing and entertainment. “Basically, we lost a year and a half to figure it out. It wasn’t easy.”
The team eventually dropped “devil” from its name, ditching the manta ray logo and block lettering in favor of “stripes,” adopting a fancier font with updated colors. the team, bogged down in losing during its first 10 seasons, reached the world series in its first season as the lightning.
“you turned the page and it worked in tampa bay,” said raymond. “However, sometimes it doesn’t work.”
the cleveland guards are still trying to get it to work. The 121-year-old baseball franchise got rid of its main Wahoo logo in 2018 and then said in 2020 that it would drop its name from the Indians after the 2021 season. Cleveland revealed its new name in July, a nod to the Guardians of the traffic on the Hope Memorial Bridge, and released a two-minute video narrated by Tom Hanks to portray an identity of resilience and unification.
But the Guardians were hit by a lawsuit from a local roller derby club of the same name, which claimed the baseball franchise had infringed on its trademark. the parties settled in November, allowing both to continue using the name.
“forget the aesthetic and creative component; From a business standpoint, securing the trademark and making this new name a trademark is a critical step,” said Bruce Burke, former NFL vice president of advertising and brand communications. “and it’s part of the reason that [washington] has taken a neutral stance the last couple of seasons, is that they have to make sure that whatever they do, whatever name they develop and whatever logos they develop, whatever Truly yours and no one’s. they can walk out of the woodwork claiming they stole their trademark.”
keep a secret
josh gerben, trademark attorney and founder of gerben perrott pllc, said that if he were advising the washington football team, he would have filed trademark applications as soon as they settled on a shortlist, protecting their options preferred by others. trying to sneak into the line in front of him.
“the challenge is that, in the us. In the US, there are thousands of trademark registrations every day,” Gerben said.
Just like fortune 500 companies, teams often go to great lengths to keep their trademark application secret. they can apply under a different name, as long as it has a relationship with the franchise, and they can search for that brand almost anywhere in the world.
The Paris Convention, which was adopted in 1883, allows individuals to file a trademark application in any of the 170 participating countries, including the United States. they can then transfer that request to another participating country within six months. That means WFT could have easily filed its trademark last year in a remote nation like Trinidad and Tobago, or Mauritius, as the Guardians did, with the intention of transferring it to the United States after its disclosure. None of those countries have a public online database for trademarks, and if someone tried to apply for the same trademark in the US after the wft application, the soccer team would take precedence.
To maintain secrecy, companies guard their rebranding as a secret treasure, restricting access to intellectual property at every stage. confidentiality agreements are common for contractors, designers, printers, sign companies, and others who know the identity of a team.
“Our contracts in general to get the job were essentially giant ndas unto themselves,” said Cody Pearson, the creative lead for Seattle Kraken, the NHL’s newest franchise.
To build a brand from the ground up, Pearson worked with contractors, adidas designers and decision makers within the league and team, collaborating almost entirely by zoom or phone. they met with printers in parking lots to study proofs, making sure a digital leak didn’t wreck implementation plans.
“Honestly, that was the hardest part,” he said, “making sure nothing leaked and that we were able to present the narrative of the new name, the new branding, the colors in the right way.”
designing a future
The creative process is often the last phase of a rebrand, when trademarks have been cleared and those months of envisioning a new identity can be put on paper. and on signs. and T-shirts. and websites.
The process can vary by team and league, and certainly by leadership. some may follow the whims and wishes of the team owner, some outsource to freelance artists, and others turn to league-employed designers. washington used code and theory from a new york-based creative agency, but has not shared details of its design process.
Usually there are a lot of drafts and feedback, sometimes revisions, other minor tweaks. In 2016, the Eagles, the veteran branding experts, helped rebrand the NHL’s Florida Panthers and designed the logo and identity for the Vegas Golden Knights expansion. The Vegas process was on a tight deadline and needed a quick turnaround: Start to finish in three and a half months, the Eagles said. Florida executives had more time to study the granular details.
“We had a couple dozen back and forths on the florida logo, just the logo itself,” he said. “We were working with the owner’s son, John, who was very involved, even in the shape of the panther’s ear.”
burke, who led nfl branding from 1987 to 1999, established the league’s first internal team branding and design, which is used by teams throughout the league.
“We basically did everything in-house, and I know since I’ve been gone, they’ve just embraced the design group more than when I was there,” Burke said.
washington has not disclosed whether it used nfl designers or turned to an outside contractor. The stakeholder group includes a limited number of key decision makers in the franchise, including Wright and the Snyders, but executives from the NFL and Nike, the league’s apparel partner, can also play a critical role in the process. .
burke and his group oversaw the redesign of 16 team brands during his tenure, including the tampa bay buccaneers and new england patriots. Though each project was different, he said, there was never a consensus among the decision makers, and discussions over the smallest details could be endless.
“From a Nike perspective, you explore everything, right down to having colorologists and looking at the narrative of each item,” Reeves said. “I’m sure you would look at some of the ones that have been submitted and not know half the details that went into making that line or that specific shade of blue or yellow. there are stories behind all this.”
On Wednesday, the decades-old Washington franchise will look to turn the page and tell a new story. and then immediately begins his next challenge.
“this one for the nfl is one of the biggest we’re going to see,” said reeves, a former nfl and nike executive. “You have people who have invested their entire lives and have the mark tattooed on their skin, and now you are going to choose something new. if they’re serious about what they’re going to do, which is change the way this team has been run, then this is the starting point. it takes time.”