Rebranding of teams more art than science, with mixed results

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If the Washington Redskins change their team name as part of a rebranding effort, they only have to look up the road for a good example to follow: the Baltimore Ravens.

The Ravens were named for the bird made famous by poet Edgar Allan Poe, who died in Baltimore. The Ravens tapped into the city’s history and tradition by selecting this name, and it has been a huge success.

“The Baltimore Ravens did a great job,” said Ronald Goodstein, associate professor of marketing at Georgetown University. “I thought that was really smart to pick up something that was part of the city’s culture. It has to have a local flavor to it that is adopted by the fans.”

The Brooklyn Nets, formerly the New Jersey Nets, are another team that has done well rebranding itself. The team brought in Brooklyn-native Jay-Z as one of the owners, and they designed a new logo and team colors that give it a local feel and touch, Mr. Goodstein said.

“They have made a team that is part of Brooklyn,” he explained. “It’s their team.”

But not every rebranding effort goes so well.

The Washington Wizards provide a cautionary tale that the city’s fans tend to be fickle. The team changed its name from the Bullets to the Wizards in 1997, causing fans to lose touch with the team’s history and forget about the NBA championship it won in 1978.

“The old Bullets, they’re gone,” Mr. Goodstein said. “The whole Wizards thing has been a huge disappointment. All people know is that the Washington Wizards have been a horrible franchise. They don’t sell out games. Changing their name to the Wizards did not help them sell a bunch of new jerseys or anything like that.”

The best sports franchises develop a faithful following that sticks with the team whether they are winning or losing. “It doesn’t matter if the Steelers are losing right now, or when the Green Bay Packers were bad, everybody came to the games,” Mr. Goodstein said. “They sold out anyway.”

On the other hand, “the weaker brands tend to focus their marketing efforts on who’s coming to town, rather than their own players. ‘Come see Kobe Bryant play against the Wizards, or LeBron James,” he said.

Outside of the sports industry, Apple Inc., successfully rebranded itself over the past decade as a young, hip company known for popular products, such as iPhones, iPads and iPods.

Old Spice deodorant also rebranded itself to compete with the likes of Axe.

But McDonald’s has struggled to change the perception that the fast-food chain has made Americans fat.

“People still go there for french fries, not salads,” Mr. Goodstein said.

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