When the digital agency Code and Theory was tapped to rebrand the Washington football team formerly known as the Redskins—a name now widely understood to be a derogatory slur against Native people—they did something commendable and rare in our culture. They stopped to think.
Instead of rushing to immediately rename the team and deliver the franchise from its ongoing PR nightmare, the agency gave the team a placeholder name—the Washington Football Team—and a transitional rebrand. The Football Team got a vintage, almost collegiate look featuring a slashing W in the team’s classic burgundy and gold colors. The player’s number appears on the helmet in place of the old logo.
The team without a name quickly became a punchline, but there was too much at stake—both ethically and economically—for a quick turnaround that might appeal to some but alienate others. In these times of social upheaval, polarization, and heightened sensitivity, the agency wanted to make sure they got it right.
They put Renee Miller, a Black female creative director with a track history of sparking conversations about social justice at the helm. They launched the interim brand along with a fan participation campaign, asking fans to submit their own ideas for the new team name, logo and iconography. They received some 10,000 submissions.
In the meantime, the Cleveland Indians phased out their logo—an even more caricatured depiction of a Native person—and committed to a name change, while the Washington Football Team clinched the division with a losing record—a dubious achievement but an achievement nonetheless. The Kansas City Chiefs, who have no plans to change their name but have banned Native-style face paint and headdresses from Arrowhead stadium, made it back to the Superbowl but lost to the Buccaneers, though not for lack of improvisatory genius on Patrick Mahomes part.
The Washington Football Team’s campaign to get the public involved and make the rebranding process as transparent as possible works on multiple levels: it gets people talking about the team for a positive reason for a change, and gives fans the sense that they have some stake in the team. That sense of ownership is important for a team with a long, rich history, but few successes in past decades. There is now talk of a new era in Washington football.
Washington brass has indicated that it likes the “Red Wolves,” a fan submission that has polled well. The “Redtails” has also gained traction on social media. The name celebrates the Tuskegee Airmen of World War Two, the first Black pilots in the US military, whose planes sported red tails that identified them to Allied forces. Head Coach Ron Rivera has expressed support for honoring the region’s military tradition, but not specifically the Redtails name.
The Washington Monuments has also been floated as a name. It’s witty and makes sense for a region defined by its political class, but we can’t picture a Monument making for a very exciting mascot. (To our knowledge, no one has proposed bringing back the Bullets. Talk about awkward team names.)
Ultimately, you can’t please everybody, but you can make people feel involved in the process, and that takes time. Done right, inclusive marketing can be an opportunity to build buy-in from a variety of “stakeholders” and even some excitement. So here’s to stopping to think before embracing meaningful change. As the Washington Football Team finds its footing in this new, more inclusive era, so does the nation.
Need advice on navigating the ever changing digital landscape? Talk to the digital-first strategists at Gator SEM, a full-service digital marketing agency based in the heart of Gator Nation (Gainesville, Florida).nd