April 15, 2015
Hail to the …: Rebranding the Redskins
Brandcenter students devote time and creativity to save legacy of beloved football franchise
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When the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office canceled the Washington Redskins trademark registration in June, calling the team’s name “disparaging to Native Americans,” Virginia Commonwealth University professor Kelly O’Keefe called it the right move.
“The logo and name are just plain offensive,” O’Keefe, professor of creative brand management in the VCU Brandcenter, said at the time. “The owners should use this as a catalyst to change the brand and change it fast. Fans will hate them for a while, but loyal fans won’t leave them over a name.”
O’Keefe, a nationally renowned branding guru, felt so strongly that he even mentioned in an interview that he would devote class time to developing a rebranding campaign if team owner Daniel Snyder were interested. While Snyder never responded, several Brandcenter students did. Since it wasn’t an officially sponsored project, O’Keefe cautioned the students they would have to do it outside of — and in addition to — regular class hours and projects.
Instead of forcing the fans to do something they don’t want, this is all about giving the fans something they could fall in love with — that they can rally to and get excited about.
The Brandcenter, part of the VCU School of Business, is a top graduate program — the first in advertising to combine business-oriented communications strategy and brand management tracks with a creative program for art directors and copywriters in a business setting. Students who graduate from the program earn valuable real-life experience to develop brands on a global scale.
More than a portfolio school, the Brandcenter offers students a Master of Science in business that complements their portfolio of work, which can include ad campaigns and strategically thought-out and creatively conceived solutions to business problems. The Brandcenter is known within the advertising industry for its intensity, so for students to devote their little free time to a project with zero payoff demonstrates it is a true labor of love.
One that came with steep obstacles and challenges.
“This is a very divisive issue for sports fans,” said Brendan Dwyer, Ph.D., assistant professor and director of research and distance learning at the VCU Center for Sport Leadership. “Even non-Redskins fans are split on the impact of Native American mascots. In general, most sports fans are unaware of all of the potential detrimental aspects to this population of our society. Others are aware, yet have rationalized the use of ‘Redskins’ as a term that honors Native Americans.
“For highly identified Redskins fans, however, the issues are known, and debate is personal. Research suggests that our favorite teams not only tell others about who we are, but we see ourselves in the team’s actions and outcomes.”
The challenge, then, was to create a path that’s not just about a name, but that can help engage the fans and the community in celebrating their way into a new name.
“Our goal is to look at ways to handle the transition to a new name that are highly supportive of the fans,” said O’Keefe, who is on a task force to replace the Fighting Sioux as the University of North Dakota’s mascot. “Instead of forcing the fans to do something they don’t want, this is all about giving the fans something they could fall in love with — that they can rally to and get excited about.”
The project proved too demanding for several students. In the end, only two teams remained.
The first group focused on a cultural change, looking back to a time when the Redskins team was at its finest: the era of the Hogs, the underdogs with guts.
The offensive linemen were called the Hogs in the ’80s, when the team was probably at its best. It was one of the few times when offensive linemen — as opposed to the quarterback or other “skill players” — were the focus of the team. Although a coach used the term as an insult, the players turned the derogatory term into a badge of honor.
"We do not want the name change to come across as an apology,” said Ewa Karweta. “If anything we want it to come across as [the Redskins saying]… no one’s going to make us do this. We’ll do it our way.’”
This sense of defiance and pride in the Redskins’ history led the group to propose the Rebels as the team’s new moniker. Creating a tougher name for the team addresses fans’ biggest fears: that changing the name is an act of retreat, O’Keefe said.
“We are very much motivated by the fans, and an idea of rebellion,” Karweta said. “We don’t think the fans or the team should let go of the name because someone told them to do so, but because it is time for them to rise up and assert the spirit of the ‘Hogs’ that they used to carry with them.”
While the first group looked toward the proud history of the Redskins, the second group looked to the future. A future where the Washington team is a leader on and off the field.
“We think that right now the Redskins can take ownership of this movement as opposed to having society influence them and forcing them to change,” said Jeffery Rozman. “The NFL is kind of troubled right now with the latest domestic abuse cases and ‘deflategate’. … We want the Redskins to be a microcosm of leadership that expands — kind of overarches as an umbrella — over the entire NFL.”
The team’s suggestion? The Washington Navigators.
“At first it might be drastically different than the Redskins that you are used to, but we thought that it was a strong name to encompass all those qualities,” said Alex Belgrave.
This is the time to define the Washington franchise, Rozman said, pointing out the team originated in Boston.
“So it was never even D.C.’s team,” he said. “This is the time to kind of turn the page, have a fresh start, and be D.C.’s first football team that they legitimately own themselves. Rather than something they inherited, rather than something that’s just been there for tradition’s sake.”
Rather than ignoring all the controversies within the franchise and the NFL itself, this forward-thinking approach calls for the team to step up, O’Keefe said.
“The fan base has resiliency,” he said. “They’re not going to duck and cover with a change like this. But what you’re giving them is — in addition to a change of name — a whole new outlook. A ray of hope. A forward-thinking approach that isn’t about ‘We got forced to change our name.’ It’s more about ‘Hey, let’s do this anyway. Let’s have a name that is inherently D.C., that we own that is our own fresh name, not something that we just picked up from Boston.’”
Ultimately, O’Keefe says, it’s up to the Redskins to take action on this, but he hopes the Brandcenter project makes it easier by showing that the world isn’t going to end with a new name.
“It’s going to begin with a new name,” he said. “The fans aren’t going to defect, the fans are going to rally. … The time is now.”
O’Keefe also stressed these ideas are being given freely to the Redskins.
“All of this incredible work that’s being done is not being done for a grade, and it’s not being done for money,” he said. “It’s being done out of love for this team.”
For more information, visit http://brandcenter.vcu.edu/work/student-showcase/.
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