The Washington Business Journal asked local branding and marketing experts their thoughts, and our CMO, Harry Brooks, Explains why he is not a fan of the new name
The D.C. area’s NFL franchise was the talk of the town Wednesday as it announced Washington Commanders would be the team’s new name. The rebrand came after a lengthy process that stretched out over two NFL seasons, during which the team simply went by the Washington Football Team.
So after all that buildup, what do the marketing and branding experts in Greater Washington think of the name? We reached out to executives at some of the largest marketing firms in the region with two questions: their initial reactions, from a branding perspective; and if they felt the Commanders lacking, what would they have liked to see instead? (Full disclosure, many of them are also Washington football fans in addition to having a professional interest.)
Here’s what they said:
Harry Brooks, chief marketing officer, ConversionPipeline.com
First reaction: From a branding perspective the Commanders is a terrible choice. Particularly for a Washington, D.C., fan base, where many locals understand military rank structure and hierarchy. The Commanders is the sixth — 6th! — rank from the top. If the connotation is supposed to be for leadership, this misses the mark entirely. Moreover, the term is used to indicate an individual, as in a “squad commander” or “mission commander” and so does nothing to indicate a strong team; there is no “team” in “Commander.”
Better choice: A better choice would have been to leave the Washington Football Team in place, or better still to leave the Redskins in place. The former has a certain cachet that fits nicely with the Washington, D.C., image of stately strength and prestige. The latter has a rich history that the fan base loved, woke political-class browbeating notwithstanding.
Jim Lamb, president, Commonwealth Consultants
First reaction: Washington was in a no-win situation here. How do you take fans over 50 with ole’ school, memories of Sammy Baugh, John Riggins and Art Monk and connect a new name to a franchise dominated by young players on rookie contracts and the lowest attendance in the league? Until the team wins and we see financials and metrics on the new product, there are no clear answers about whether this rebrand worked. The Commanders brand name is a strong active name with logo and design opportunities. From that perspective, it checked a must-have box.
Better choice: I was hoping they would be able to connect more with the winning legacy of the past and give it a refreshed look and feel. I personally would have preferred tying Washington Football with an active word besides team.
Kerry-Ann Hamilton, CEO, KAH Consulting Group
First reaction: Rebrands are inherently challenging, especially with a name that is both reviled and revered; unsurprisingly, the reaction to Commanders thus far is decidedly mixed. I find the name on its face to be uninspiring and unoriginal. The team’s brand video signals some positive attributes, including legacy, tradition, community; they are largely generic, and I don’t see how they strategically ladder up to “Commanders” as a unique brand name. While the name vaguely evokes the nation’s capital and the president as the commander-in-chief, it feels militaristic and does not fully reflect what Washington, D.C., represents for this community. That said, it is an opportunity to start anew. I applaud the team for taking the time — almost two years — to be thoughtful, deliberative and inclusive. It will take even more time to become a household name. The challenge they have now is to imbue the name with the right meaning and emotion over time.
Dick Rabil, president and creative strategist, SliceWorks
First reaction: My initial reaction without knowing all the research behind this is:
It’s OK. I’m not overly enthused at the outset.
It lacks an endearing component that emotionally engages me. I don’t readily identify with it… but I’m biased having grown up a Washington fan for many decades.
Logo is generic in feel and somewhat mechanical looking. Falls on the cold side despite the traditional warm colors.
It will take time to get used to it like any brand change.
It’s always easier to accept a new brand if one is excited… and the team is winning. That has not happened recently so that adds to my lukewarm reaction.
Patrick King, founder and CEO, Imagine
First reaction: I think that the new name is bland and lacks any significant meaning but I understand the direction. I believe this name was probably chosen out of abundance of caution since the organization was — and I suppose, still is — the subject of controversy. The result is something safe, but the safest choice is often the least interesting.
Gal Borenstein, CEO, The Borenstein Group
First reaction: Washington’s new brand name is not about the name itself. The name is a strategic opportunity for the Washington Football Team to reset and transition away from its ethos from a negative public perception, which in recent years, damaged the legacy of the team. The name is a conduit to say yes to diversity and inclusion, no to systemic misogynism and racism, and open up a new chapter. It’s how we write history. And history is written by the winners.
Better choice: The Washington Warriors. I am utterly dismayed that the team’s new initials WC, which is known as “Toilet (from Water Closet)” by the most common definition on Snapchat, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, has not been properly vetted. And every letter counts. Big miss.
Pasha Irshad, vice president of digital marketing, Merritt Group
First reaction: As a fan of the “Commanders” for the last 35+ years, it’s evident to anyone that follows this organization that the Commanders’ rebrand was the safe, easy and noncontroversial choice. They made a profit-driven, business-first decision, one that doesn’t ruffle feathers and doesn’t leave the organization open to any more litigation than it already has on its plate. It’s bland, uninspiring and for a two-year project, the stenciled “W” logo leaves a lot to be desired.
Better choice: If this were indeed a nod to the long-suffering fan base, anything invoking memories of Joe Gibbs and the Hogs (Red Hogs, Warthogs) would have been a slam dunk. Red Wolves was the fan-favorite for going in, only to be squashed in an early January post by the team. Unfortunately for D.C., we’ve got a long history of uninspiring sports team rebrands, and one has to look no further than the Bullets changing their names to the Wizards in 1997. In 2015, the original Wizards logo was updated to include the Washington Monument, moving away from the wizard, which has no tie to the history of the city.
Shawn Noratel, founding partner and creative director, Liquified Creative
First reaction: As a branding agency, our stance on the new team name is one of questioning. The original switch from the name Redskins to Washington Football Team, then to Commanders, seems to have been sort of a full circle back to where the original issue existed (relating to the meaning behind the name itself). If the decision to remain as the Washington Football Team had occurred, we believe there would have been a brand elevation and consistency with the focus on regionality and our nation’s capital. Using the “W” icon simultaneously with the new logo and colors, the brand transition is not clear, concise and smooth, as any brand transition or rollout should be. Additionally, Commanders does not provide for a lot of brand flexibility specifically relating to logo variations, mascot incorporation and the tonality the term “Commanders” itself evokes.
Better choice: Washington War Dogs or keeping The Washington Football Team. Alliteration with the “W” would have been strong, especially with the new “W” Logo and through the keeping of the burgundy and gold coloring.
Laquan Austion, vice president, Clyde Group
First reaction: The name change from the Washington Redskins to the Washington Commanders is smart and culturally sensitive. A team name should reflect the best parts culturally of its community’s history and current environment — this change does just that. Although the name change came from public scrutiny, it is clear that [Team President] Jason Wright and the team franchise carefully considered the environment of the team and, perhaps more importantly, allowed fans to participate in the process. Allowing the fans to be part of the process of choosing the team’s identity is smart for brand loyalty and understanding cultural sensitivity. As more brands continue to consider the impact of DE&I both internally and externally, they must consider the current environment and the long-term implications of not being inclusive of all communities. The Washington Commanders pivot here is timely, thoughtful, and culturally appropriate.
Mimi Carter, senior vice president and U.S. general manager, proof strategies
First reaction: “I like it. It suggests authority and is not government-oriented (Federals, Senators.)”
Better choice: “The Red Pins”