Sports Branding: Establishing Your Identity

Brand identity is strongly associated with and tied to emotion and motivation. Well-developed brands inspire a strong emotional response and a sense of connection and purpose in their audience. Nike’s iconic swoosh or Ferrari’s prancing horse exemplifies how professional brand identities can evoke a strong emotional response in an audience or consumer base.

This is perhaps nowhere more true than in sports branding. A sports team brand can be imbued with symbolism relating to tradition, a historied era in a franchise’s past, or the simple and enduring passion of a team’s dedicated and loyal fanbase. Sports branding, as a rule, is an infamously tricky undertaking. A team’s established brand identity is subject to a complex mix of reverence and celebration among a club’s fans.

Fan Sentiment and Rebranding Efforts

Any changes, no matter how minor, must endure fan scrutiny and win at least a general level of support. Otherwise, they will be resented, derided, and ultimately rejected in favor of established or classic designs from the team’s recent or distant past.

Changing elements of a sports team brand is by no means a trivial undertaking. In addition to traditional design concerns, any alterations or redesigns must consider fan sentiment, conventional and historical iterations of a team’s logo, and comparatively abstract considerations like market segmentation, enhanced commercial or merchandising appeal, and consumer behavior.

Team rebranding is a notoriously challenging and daunting undertaking with this many moving and interconnected parts. The determinations that go into any sports team brand alterations touch on fan engagement, team popularity, and appeal. But ultimately, the financial ramifications of changes to the team’s brand strategy identity will win out.

History, Tradition, Culture

Examples of failed rebranding efforts abound. England’s then-Championship League Leeds United football team experimented with changing an element perhaps most central in their brand strategy identity — the team’s logo. Thousands of fans, incensed at the omission of the white Yorkshire rose that had been central to the historical design, signed an online petition within days of the new logo reveal.

Despite a touted six-month research and development phase and the efforts of “10,000 consultants,” the new Leeds United logo was almost universally reviled. Fan outrage was so intense that it forced the team to revert to the old colors and logo, which has remained unchanged.

Creating a Perception

Branding is essentially establishing a tangible identity that will appeal to those who relate to the brand, either as consumers, clients, or in the case of sports team brands, fans. These groups can be as divergent as the user base of a widely adopted technology or as comparatively monolithic as the fans of a well-established sports team.

Developing a brand involves establishing an image representative of the perception you wish to create in an audience. It’s both about how the branded entity wants to be seen by the public and capturing the essence of the organization behind the brand.

There should always be the consideration of how a brand’s customers will respond. In their failed redesign attempt, Leeds United may have neglected to gauge fan feelings about the history or traditions of the club. Emblematic elements, like the white Yorkshire rose of the original Leeds United logo, have broad appeal if a brand is established and steeped in the tradition and lore precious to sports fans.

Enduring Identity & Value

The feelings of a sports brand’s customers — chiefly its fans but also its sponsors — are the primary consideration any redesign effort should consider. Positive customer perception can not only drive merchandising sales, but it can also result in increased fan support and team popularity. This can even be true of teams that are underperforming or in decline.

The white-bordered, blue five-pointed star of the Dallas Cowboys is one of the most famous logos in sports. It is iconic, simple, and holds great power to unify club fans from all over the US and the world. NFL merchandise emblazoned with the team logo remains among the most popular and best-selling year after year, regardless of how well the club performs on the playing field.

Much More Than a Logo

Sports team branding influences not only the team’s uniforms and official merchandise but also the design of their website, their social media identity, and any product associated with the team through sponsorship deals or other partnerships. Brand identity, especially in sports, is a significant commercial asset that must be handled carefully to avoid disrupting perceived brand value.

Any consideration of rebranding or alteration of a sports team’s identity should begin with carefully conducted research into market segmentation, public perception, and sponsorship or merchandising concerns. A sports team’s brand is more than simply a logo in different sizes, depending on what kind of merchandise it appears.

A team’s brand identity should reflect its values, history, tradition, members, and supporters. Sports branding should, in essence, seek to portray and influence the public image of the organization and its constituent parts. It represents how the team wishes to be presented and perceived at exhibitions and events across the public and private spheres.

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