Cleveland Guardians Snafu: Why Even Big Brands Need to Think Digital First

On July 23, the Cleveland Indians took to Twitter and announced a rebrand to the name Cleveland Guardians with a stirring video, narrated by Tom Hanks and scored by the Black Keys. This news came after the team had conversations about changing its name with local community members and Native American groups in the summer of 2020.

The MLB team didn’t make this change lightly or base it on feelings. Its strategists used data to inform the rebrand, surveying 40,000 fans and conducting 140 hours of interviews with fans, community leaders, and front-office personnel, according to its website.

The one thing they apparently didn’t consider? The team's future digital presence.

The OG Cleveland Guardians

If you go to today, you’ll find a website for the roller derby team by that same name. The Cleveland Guardian roller derby team has been around since at least 2014 and not only owns the domain, but also the corresponding Facebook and Instagram handles.



Yes, the multimillion-dollar sports team, after dedicating hours of interviews, thousands of surveys, and who knows how many hundreds of thousands of marketing dollars, forgot to check that the domain and social handles were free before choosing a rebrand.

Queue the Cleveland Guardians Trademark Battle  

On the same day they dropped the rebrand announcement on Twitter, the MLB team applied for a trademark. Four days after the baseball team announced their rebrand, the roller derby team by the same name applied for a trademark.  

It might seem that the baseball team has the advantage as the first to file, but the U.S. law often awards trademarks based on the first to use rather than first to file. The roller derby team has sold branded merchandise since at least 2007 and now has an online store to bolster their trademark application.

What does this Cleveland Guardian Hoopla Mean to Marketers?

Honestly? Not much.

The Cleveland Guardian saga just goes to show the dangers of deprioritizing digital initiatives. This entire issue could have been solved if someone had Google searched the name, looked at digital properties, and made inquiries at the beginning,

It all sounds a little like a modern-day fable:

Multimillion-dollar brand in a billion-dollar industry spends a year and untold dollars on a rebrand, focusing on the brand story, the merch, and the optics, only to realize in the 11th hour (8th inning?!) that they forgot about their digital branding.

Alternatively, local brand stands their ground against incoming branding behemoth and (maybe?!) walks away victorious.

4 comments about "Cleveland Guardians Snafu: Why Even Big Brands Need to Think Digital First".
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  1. David Vawter from Doe-Anderson, August 17, 2021 at 1:05 p.m.

    Is this really a fable of "digital initiatives?" It would appear that this roller derby team exists in the real world, in the same city. Why didn't anyone in the MLB team organization know that? And why didn't anyone do a copyright/trademark search? Or did the baseball team just figure they could roll over the other guys? Amateur hour. 

  2. Dan Wald from WordsbyWald replied, August 17, 2021 at 1:16 p.m.

    Agree with David - step one of any rebrand is to check new name ideas at any of the domain registries to see if it's available. This isn't a really a digital versus non-digital issue. Basic common sense these days. Then of course a full copyright/trademark search. Amateur hour indeed. Personally I don't really get how a baseball team are "guardians" but that's a searate issue. 

  3. Jim Heininger from Rebranding Experts, August 17, 2021 at 3:24 p.m.

    We lead rebrandings for clients every day. As you narrow the search for possible names, we always conduct cursory name/trademark searches and investigate what is ownable in terms of domains. Standard procedures for rebranding success.

  4. Douglas Ferguson from College of Charleston, August 18, 2021 at 11:55 a.m.

    Tempest in a teapot. I remember the new NBC logo in 1975 that turned out to be identical to the logo used by the Nebraska ETV network. Yes, it was embarrassing but ultimately enriching to Nebraska ETV  after a financial settlement was reached. The MLB team likely has enough money to buy their way out of trademark (and send a lawyer's kid to private college).

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