“Branding is not a static task, but rather it requires constant evaluation to guarantee that the brand represents the mission and soul of the company and where it is headed.”
Branding goes beyond thinking about a catchy name and color scheme to compose the trademark that will represent the company’s products or services. Today, more than ever, it is imperative to consider the values that the brand communicates because consumers and even commercial partners seek to associate with companies with shared values. Poor branding decisions can be costly in terms of reputation, reduced profits and forfeited commercial partnerships.
At the center of this discussion is the NFL’s Washington Football Team, formerly known as the Redskins, whose name and mascot were widely (but not universally) considered disparaging to Native Americans. Back in 2015, a federal judge ruled that the franchise’s trademark registration should be cancelled because the term “Redskins” was offensive to Native Americans. However, this ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court in a separate decision, which ruled that trademark protections could not be denied over the use of disparaging and offensive terms. As a result, the group of Native Americans who had initiated the suit in 2015 decided to drop their legal battle.
Recently, because of the protests regarding perceived racial inequalities and injustices in American society, renewed attention has been focused on the Redskins franchise and name. Adweek reported in July 2020 that 87 investment firms and shareholders worth a total $620 billion requested major Washington Redskins’ commercial partners to end their business relationship with the franchise until the divisive name is replaced, and team apparel was pulled from key retailer e-commerce sites. The intense societal and economic pressure resulted in the team deciding to remove the Redskins name from their organization and initiate a rebranding, which resulted in the temporary team name, Washington Football Team.
Matching Values with Value
Sports teams all over the world have a legion of fans that are both emotionally and economically invested in their teams, spending by some estimates over $100 billion on sports apparel, tickets and memorabilia. As a result, trademark licensing agreements are essential for extracting value from these relationships with the fans, but these agreements require that the team values match both the public’s and business partners’ expectations. When these are not aligned, a rebrand may be the best solution for the organization to survive and thrive going forward.
In the current climate, companies and organizations have to meet higher standards from consumers and the wider society regarding their products and services. Consumers are increasingly putting emphasis on sustainability, environmental responsibility, investments in the local community, and social justice when deciding which products or services to purchase.
In addition, an increasingly globalized world requires companies to be aware that expressions and words can have differing connotations across cultures and languages. To further complicate matters, with the passing of time, society continually evolves and the meaning of words transforms as well. It is not uncommon for expressions once considered acceptable or commonplace to became offensive or inappropriate.
Lessons from the Past
American sports leagues have been dealing with these issues for many years. For example, in 1997 the Washington Bullets changed their name to the Washington Wizards. The former name “Bullets”, which dates back to the 1940s, was meant to represent the explosive talents and speed of the team. However, in the 1990s, Washington D.C. experienced a wave of violence that claimed many lives, mainly young African American men. In this context, the name “Bullets” risked being associated with the local violence and the organization decided to rebrand the team as the “Wizards”.
Other teams with mascots considered offensive to Native Americans have rebranded as well. The Golden State Warriors basketball team, for example, dropped its Native American mascot in 1971 but maintains the Warriors name to this day. Numerous university sports programs throughout the United States have gone down similar paths, removing both Native American imagery, names and mascots in recent decades.
The Brazilian Example
In Brazil, it is not permitted to register as a trademark any expression, figure, drawing or other symbol which is considered immoral, racist, religiously insensitive, or offensive. Based on this law, since 2002 the Brazilian Patent and Trademark Office denied 17 trademark registration requests within the sports related class, due to the expressions/trademarks being considered offensive.
Stepping back, the principle lesson to be extracted from this discussion is the realization that branding is not a static task, but rather it requires constant evaluation to guarantee that the brand represents the mission and soul of the company and where it is headed. Organizations and brands must evolve to meet the growing expectations of their consumers and society in order to have a winning game plan.
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