As we move from generation to generation, the way we interact with the world around us evolves. Cultural shifts can lead to certain parts of ordinary speech becoming inappropriate. When this occurs, brands must be prepared to adapt.
In 1932, when the Washington Redskins were founded, the world was a very different place. Many words, behaviors and attitudes that were once the norm are now viewed as distasteful and backwards. One of those words, of course, is the Redskins name itself.
The Name Needs to Match the Experience
Opponents of the proposed name change argue that “Redskins” is so much more than a word; it’s a feeling. To them, being a Redskins fan doesn’t mean being culturally insensitive: it means ballgames with Dad, a community of fellow fans, and crisp fall afternoons spent tailgating with friends.
But these days, the Redskins name can no longer exist in a vacuum of positive memories — it has been tarnished by the controversy, slapped with labels of “offensive” and “insensitive.” And these negative associations aren’t going anywhere any time soon. At this point, there is only one way to get back to the positive brand associations they once enjoyed: the Redskins need to change their name.
What’s the Precedent?
A rebrand necessitated by cultural evolution is nothing new. Consider the example of Jaguar. Until March 1945, the English car company was known as SS Cars. However, after World War II, the company decided to adopt a new name in order to rid their brand of any association with the Schutzstaffel (the “SS”), the hated and feared Nazi police squadrons.
A similar shift in linguistic perception impacted the fast food chain once known as Kentucky Fried Chicken. As Americans began to become more health-conscious and averse to fried food, the chain altered its offerings to include grilled and baked chicken and ultimately rebranded as the “fried”-free KFC. By taking steps to keep their brand up-to-date and appealing to the new cultural milieu, KFC was able to remain a contender in the competitive fast-food industry.
Brand Equity Considerations
More branding-savvy opponents of the change might be concerned that, by adopting a new name, the Redskins will lose the brand equity they’ve built up over the years. This is a weak argument. If the Redskins are to make a name change, that new name will be known instantly. The press will be quick to publicize the resolution, and as football season continues on, the NFL will have no choice but to use the new name in their reporting.
More accurately, the Redskins’ brand equity is already suffering as a result of their refusal to rebrand. Those seeking to avoid offending their audience have taken to calling the team by alternate names—for example, The Washington City Paper calls the team the Pigskins. In this way, the controversy is diluting the team’s brand more than a new name ever could.
How to Choose a Name
It’s clear that retaining the Redskins name is not a good long-term business plan. Sticking with a name that only appeals to a limited, existing fan base will ultimately damage the reputation of the team.
However, fans won’t want to trade the Redskins name for the bland result of a board meeting or focus group. To best capture the experience of the team’s loyal fans, the Washington football team will need to call in naming experts, people who understand the significance of a name and all it can represent.
Changes to your brand will always be met with resistance. In the case of the Redskins, no new name will make everyone happy — there will likely be weeks or even months of pushback. However, if Washington chooses a name that both defines and enhances the team’s identity and can capture the positive associations fans have with the team, the controversy will die down and we can get back to focusing on what the team really stands for: a tradition of great football.