The Washington Post | The Washington Football Team's 18-month rebrand was extensive. Now the hard part begins.
Originally published in The Washington Post
Jason Wright describes it as a “reintroduction” of Washington’s NFL team. A new name. A new look. Maybe a new start.
On Wednesday, the team’s president will help to finally unveil its new identity, the culmination of an extensive rebranding that stretched over 18 months and remained mostly shrouded in secrecy.
For years, team owner Daniel Snyder vowed he would never — “NEVER,” in all caps — get rid of the Redskins name, which many Native Americans and others felt was racist. But in 2020, amid a global reckoning with racism and police brutality after the murder of George Floyd, he finally conceded. Pressure from sponsors and politicians, who threatened to walk away from lucrative partnerships and prevent the team from returning to D.C. from the Maryland suburbs, prompted the change.
The team’s 87-year-old moniker was retired, and the temporary name Washington Football Team was adopted, setting in motion the NFL’s latest rebrand.
Yet Washington’s “reintroduction” is unlike any other. The franchise didn’t relocate, like many others that underwent name changes. It didn’t switch owners, either. It had years of great success but more recent ones of mostly losing, litigation and off-field turmoil.
“This is a full renaming of what the team stands for,” said Marc Reeves, a former design ad marketing executive with the NFL and Nike. “They’re at a really interesting point, and I would love to know what’s happening there because this is a tough one. You have to kind of build off your storied history, but that storied history was a long time ago and your more recent history has been saddled with a lot of their own doing.”
Washington’s rebranding has drawn a mix of anger and hope — anger over the change that many resisted and hope of a more successful future. It has also led to a wild-goose chase. Fans scoured trademark applications, domain purchases and any little clue, real or contrived, that might have led them to the new name. Interviews with team alumni and team executives have only fanned the flames of conspiracy.
Were those actually the final eight contenders in the video, as co-owner Tanya Snyder said? Or did she misspeak?
Did franchise frontman Joe Theismann actually confirm the name is Commanders in that interview? Or was that planted misdirection by the team?
What about that trademark application by MarkMonitor, a registrar the NFL has used for other teams? Or that web address for the Washington Admirals that redirected to Washington’s website?
On the eve of the reveal, speculation intensified when a news helicopter for the local NBC affiliate spotted a Commanders banner hanging in a window at FedEx Field.
Yet the lengthy rebranding also raised a simple question: What has taken so long?
Turns out, a brand is similar to an NFL roster: The good ones can’t be rebuilt overnight, and in Washington’s case, the work probably cost millions of dollars, a complicated process fraught with legal hurdles and creative challenges.
Research and red tape
Hired just one month after the team decided to ditch its former 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 scant details to spark intrigue. The few he offered: The team would retain its signature burgundy and gold colors. But it would not use the name Warriors or any other that had Native American ties or imagery.
“It’s a lot more than just, ‘Hey, this name is cool,’ ” said Jeff Eagles, a branding expert who spent 10 years as a designer for Adidas. “There’s the history of who you’ve been, there’s who you are now, and then there’s also what you aspire to be. A good identity links all those things together.”
Wright and the team sought a clean break from their previous controversial name and wanted an identity that embodied the fan base and D.C. region.
“How do they represent something that is supposed to be unifying across all elements of a community?” Reeves said. “That’s one of the great things about sport. ... It is a unifier in a way that most things, whether in politics, whether it’s even age, whether it’s socioeconomics — it binds people together in ways that other brands, other consumer-facing identities can’t. So it’s a heavy responsibility.”
But discovering that identity isn’t merely a matter of brainstorming or sifting through fan submissions.
In his latest address to fans, Wright informed them that Washington won’t be the RedWolves, a fan favorite from early on in the process. It would be too difficult and costly to secure the rights, he said, so the team crossed it off the list.
The legal process is typically the most complex and time-consuming in any rebrand. It was for the former Tampa Bay Devil Rays, who changed their name in 2007 with hope 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. “We essentially lost a year and a half figuring that out. It was not easy.”
The team eventually just dropped “Devil” from its name, got rid of the manta ray logo and block lettering and went with “Rays,” adopting a more sophisticated font with updated colors. The team, mired in losing for its first 10 seasons, made it to the World Series in its first season as the Rays.
“You turn the page, and it worked in Tampa Bay,” Raymond said. “Sometimes it doesn’t work, though.”
The Cleveland Guardians are still trying to make it work. The 121-year-old baseball franchise ditched its Chief Wahoo logo in 2018 and then said in 2020 that it would remove its Indians name after the 2021 season. Cleveland revealed its new name in July, a nod to the Guardians of Traffic on the Hope Memorial Bridge, and launched a two-minute video narrated by Tom Hanks to portray an identity of resilience and unification.
But the Guardians were hit with a lawsuit from a local roller derby club of the same name, which claimed the baseball franchise infringed on its trademark. The sides settled in November, allowing both to continue to use the name.
“Forget the aesthetic and the creative component; from a business standpoint, securing the trademark and making this new name trademarkable is a critical step,” said Bruce Burke, the former vice president of advertising and brand communications for the NFL. “And it’s part of the reason [Washington] has taken a neutral stance the last two seasons, is they’ve got to make sure that whatever they do, whatever name they develop and the logos that they develop, are truly theirs and no one can come out of the woodwork stating that they stole their trademark.”
Guarding a secret
Josh Gerben, a trademark attorney and the founder of Gerben Perrott PLLC, said if he were advising the Washington Football Team, it would have filed trademark applications as soon as it settled on a list of finalists, protecting its preferred choices from others trying to sneak in line ahead of it.
“The challenge is, in the U.S., there are thousands of trademark filings every day,” Gerben said.
Just like Fortune 500 companies, teams typically go to great lengths to keep their trademark application under wraps. They can file under a different name, as long as it has a relationship to the franchise, and they can pursue that mark nearly anywhere in the world.
The Paris Convention, which was adopted in 1883, allows people to essentially file a trademark application in any of 170 participating countries, including the United States. They can then transfer that application to another participating country within six months. That means the WFT could’ve easily filed its trademark last year in a far-flung nation such as Trinidad and Tobago — or Mauritius, as the Guardians did — with the intent of transferring it to the United States after its reveal. Neither of those countries has a public online database for trademarks, and if someone tried to apply for the same mark in the United States after the WFT application, the football team would have priority.
To maintain secrecy, companies guard their rebrand like a secret treasure, restricting access to the intellectual property at every stage. Nondisclosure agreements are common for contractors, designers, printers, signage companies and others who become privy to a team’s identity.
“Our contracts in general for getting the job were essentially giant NDAs in itself,” said Cody Pearson, the creative lead for the Seattle Kraken, the newest NHL franchise.
To build a brand from scratch, Pearson worked with contractors, designers from Adidas and decision-makers within the league and team, collaborating almost entirely by Zoom or phone. They would meet with printers in parking lots to study proofs, making sure a digital leak didn’t spoil the rollout plans.
“That was honestly the hardest part,” he said, “making sure nothing leaked and we could kind of put out the narrative of the new name, the new brand, the colors in the right way.”
Designing a future
The creative process is typically the last phase in a rebrand, when trademarks have been cleared and those months of envisioning a new identity can be put to paper. And on signs. And jerseys. And websites.
The process can vary by team and league — and certainly by leadership. Some might follow the whims and wishes of the team owner, some outsource to independent artists, and others turn to designers employed by the league. Washington employed New York-based creative agency Code and Theory but hasn’t shared details of its design process.
Typically, there are many drafts and opinions — sometimes overhauls, other times minor tweaks. In 2016, Eagles, the veteran branding experts, helped rebrand the NHL’s Florida Panthers and design the logo and identity for the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. The Vegas process had a tight deadline and needed a quick turnaround — start to finish in 3½ months, Eagles said. Florida executives had more time to study 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, down to the shaping of the panther’s ear.”
Burke, who led the NFL’s branding from 1987 to 1999, established the league’s first in-house design and branding team, which is used by teams across the league.
“We basically did everything in-house, and I know since I’ve left, they’ve only embraced the design group more than when I was there,” Burke said.
Washington hasn’t disclosed whether it used the NFL’s designers or turned to an outside contractor. The group of stakeholders 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, also can play a vital role in the process.
Burke and his group oversaw the redesign of 16 team brands during his tenure, including those of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New England Patriots. While every project differed, he said, there was never a consensus among the decision-makers, and discussions over the smallest details could be endless.
“From Nike’s perspective, everything is explored, down to having colorologists and looking at the storytelling across every element,” Reeves said. “I’m sure you would look at some of the ones that have been introduced and not know half the details that went into making that line that or that specific shade of blue or yellow. There are stories behind all of it.”
On Wednesday, the decades-old Washington franchise will seek to turn the page and tell a new story. And then its next challenge immediately begins.
“This one for the NFL is one of the most important ones we’re going to see,” said Reeves, the former NFL and Nike executive. “You have people who’ve invested their whole lives and have the brand tattooed on their skin, and now you’re going to choose something new. If they’re earnest in what they’re going to do, which is to change how this team has been run, then this is the starting point of that. It takes time.”