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A Social Branding Moment

A Social Branding Moment

Imagine the surprise in some circles over the last couple of weeks when the Washington Redskins football club got into a tussle with its fans over the name. Some customers -- another name for fans -- feel that the name is demeaning to Native Americans, and it is not the only example of a team being named after some pejorative-sounding moniker for the folks who greeted Columbus.

A little while ago I wrote about New Coke and the time in the 1980s when Coca-Cola tried to change its formula (without much prompting from customers). As you may recall, especially if you were alive and drinking the stuff at the time, the customers didn't much like it.

They were miffed about the new taste, but probably more so over the way the company more or less unilaterally made the change without a great deal of consultation. No doubt there were focus groups and surveys, but the essential fact of the matter is that Joe customer felt left out, and that wasn't good.

That incident lives on not only for Coke but as a vivid object lesson for any company trying to deal with customers in an up-front and transparent way -- the only way to do it today. So imagine the surprise in some circles over the last couple of weeks when the Washington Redskins football club got into a tussle with its fans over the name.

Some customers -- another name for fans -- feel that the name is demeaning to Native Americans, and it is not the only example of a team being named after some pejorative-sounding moniker for the folks who greeted Columbus. So the Washington brouhaha is just the latest in a long line of old-think in which an out-of-touch owner or CEO attempts to stonewall a change that's much needed to reflect the realities of the day.

Team owner Daniel Snyder said that there was exactly zero chance the team would ever change its name, and not surprisingly, the clamor has not died down -- The New York Times likes to run stories every few days on the subject -- though other events transpiring in the nation's capital have certainly taken over the headlines.

The Fans Own the Brand

What's a team or a fan to do? It is reasonable to assume that some fans are as adamant as the owner about not changing the team's name. There is, as Snyder indicated, a great deal of tradition and history invested in the team name, and that all militates against change. This in itself is a terrible bit of logic and flies in the face of more advanced thinking that would seek to cut losses rather than let them mount, but there are times when emotion overrules logic.

What can the fans do?

Well, taking a page from the New Coke experience and a liberal dose of CRM and social thinking, the solution is fairly obvious. While Daniel Snyder may own the logo and pay the salaries, in a very real sense the fans own the brand. Without fans, a.k.a. customers, the franchise is not worth much, so something more than a flat rejection is in order. But even beyond this, naming reflects popular use, not simply what the owner decides to call a team.

In my native New England, we have a team called the Patriots and they play at Gillette Stadium, but the local sportscasters -- resentful of giving a free plug to the razor company whenever they mention the place -- long ago resorted to calling it "the Razor" -- a nice moniker that evokes (at least) mock terror in anyone who is part of a visiting delegation to boot.

So, my recommendation to all Washington fans is to take a similar tactic. Develop a preferred nickname. I suggest "the Nickels" since the logo looks a lot like the head on an old five cent piece. The Nickels would take some getting used to but, like the Razor, it has some built in advantages.

When the team wins, you can praise the alloy, and the nickel defense might get extra meaning. When the team loses, as it seems to do with verve these days, you can fatalistically claim that you got your nickel's worth. Think of the possibilities.

Customer-Wrought Change

Starting a social media campaign to bring the Nickels into popular use shouldn't be difficult, and it seems to be just the job that social was invented for. After a few days of "#Nickels is better than @Redskins," it would be embedded in the collective consciousness of the team and its fans. Better still, the logo (which I think is quite handsome and stoic) can go right on being used without a hiccup.

This isn't as far-fetched as it seems. In the 19th century it was customary to adorn our coinage such as the nickel and the penny with Native Americans. It was also customary to resort to classical allusions of liberty as a goddess or even the god Mercury for other coins.

Over our history, however, the country developed its own heroes: Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson and FDR, people who deserved a place of honor on our coinage. This takes nothing away from the Native American heads that were positioned on our coins as tribute to their pluck and determination at resisting American westward movement.

Still, times change, and what was once tribute came to be seen as Chauvinism. We changed our coins and it's time to change some team names. If the team owners can't see this, there is no reason for the brand owners to wring their hands thinking they can't do anything. Not today, not in the social era.


Denis Pombriant is the managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant's research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is the author of Hello, Ladies! Dispatches from the Social CRM Frontier and can be reached at denis.pombriant@beagleresearch.com.


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