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

The following post was previously published in August, but its marketing lessons remain relevant.

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.

3 comments about "Cleveland Guardians Snafu: Why Even Big Brands Need to Think Digital First".
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  1. David Saline from 260 Media & Entertainiment, November 12, 2021 at 1:16 p.m.

    You go roller derby team!  Besides, it's really not a good name for the baseball team regardless of who narrated the video or scored the music.  You're right.  This is Marketing 101.

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, November 15, 2021 at 10:10 a.m.

    ----or they might have come up with a better name than "Guardians", then checked if it was available. What a silly name for a beseball team.

  3. Dan Ciccone from STACKED Entertainment, November 17, 2021 at 3 p.m.

    MLB put out a statment reinforcing the new name was primarily driven by the fans - "Our fans are at the heart of this decision. We heard this name often from our fans as a top contender because of it's connection to the iconic Cleveland landmark - The Hope Memorial Bridge that stands just outside of our ballpark where the Guardians of Traffic have become a symbol of the city's resiliency."
    - 140 hours of interviews with fans, community leaders and front office personnel
    - More than 40,000 fans surveyed
    - 4,000 fans sign up to participate in research via team name website

    Several MLB teams do not use the team name on social media handles (they were already taken) and I don't think anyone in the new front office for the Cleveland baseball team is worried about confusing fans between a baseball team and a roller derby team.

    Coming up with a unique web domain and/or social handle that isn't already in use is almost impossible.  Limiting the team name to what is available on social channels isn't an option for most brands.

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