Why MLS clubs are rebranding, how some got it wrong, and why that’s an opportunity to build fan trust

Eray Dursun couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Neither could anyone in his Chicago Fire FC fan base. A new logo had been leaked online and, well, it wasn’t good.

“All of the fans I know and speak to, including myself, were genuinely in disbelief,” said the Section 8 fan group’s communications director. “We thought it was a joke that someone must have filed this patent for the logo, that just upsets us. And then they would give us a really good logo. When the club actually announced that was the logo, we were even more incredulous.”

The so-called “Fire Crown” logo was widely ridiculed after its debut in November 2019. According to team sources, the displeasure found an understanding listener in new majority owner Joe Mansueto, who took over the club two months before the new crest was introduced. He suggested waiting a few months to see if the logo resonates with followers – change is always difficult, after all – but if not, they should try to create a new brand. A rebrand of the rebrand, if you will.

Months passed, the anger would not abate, and The Fire hired designer extravaganza Matthew Wolff to work exclusively on the new vision. The team met with supporters and asked for their feedback and ideas. In late 2021, they launched a new identity, inspired by the club’s history and the colors of Chicago, which was much more successful. (The Fire, however, kept the addition of “FC” to the team name because of course they did.)

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The Fire are far from the only Major League Soccer team to reinvent their brand and identity in recent years. The Columbus Crew (née Columbus SC, née Columbus Crew SC, née Columbus Crew), the New England Revolution, Houston Dynamo FC (née Houston Dynamo) and Club de Foot Montreal (née Montreal Impact) all became restarted with varying degrees of success, and the reasons are also different.

Business considerations are a factor as a new logo means buying new merchandise. Sporting Kansas City, which arguably started the trend towards European naming conventions when it abandoned the Kansas City Wizards identity in 2011, has seen its merchandise sales soar from $30,000 in 2006 to over $1 million in 2020.

The time had come for the Revolution, the last of the original MLS teams to be renamed. “As things started to accelerate in other areas – in the store, in the training center, with all of ours [Designated Player] Slots filled, Bruce Arena shut down – it just felt like the club’s visual identity got stuck again, you know I don’t use the term but the MLS 1.0 type team does,” said Cathal Conlon, vice president of marketing and fan engagement.

In Houston, the rebranding came together in part because the previous identity felt outdated – the club originally formed in just five months after moving away from San Jose – but also because the organization had grown around an NWSL franchise: Houston Dash. Combining the two made sense.

“Not only did we consider the Dynamo, we also considered the Dash,” said Zac Emmons, vice president of marketing and communications. “The process started with discussing the Dynamo identity, but as we went through it we saw an opportunity to bring in the Dash as well.” The team partnered with a Houston-based company to ensure the new identity would harmonize with the city’s fabric.

Changing a brand’s identity is always a difficult task, but never more so than when the passions of sports fans are involved.

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Hercules Gomez reacts to the news that Columbus Crew will be renamed Columbus SC.

“It’s just more intense,” Tosh Hall, global chief creative officer at creative agency Jones Knowles Ritchie, said of working with sports teams. His company was instrumental in renaming Revolution, along with other companies such as Budweiser, Burger King, and New England staple Dunkin’.

When the process goes wrong, it usually goes wrong for a number of reasons. Teams can ignore the past to focus on the future. They can also ignore their fans.

“The two main things I’m trying to do with these rebrands are uniting as many fans as possible and retaining elements from the past,” Wolff, the Fire designer, who has also worked on crests such as New York City FC, LAFC, and Angel City has worked FC said.

As Revolution began to consider rebranding, they coordinated with the MLS league offices to conduct a series of general, non-Revolution-identified, focus groups on professional football in New England. The aim was to hear unvarnished opinions and to let the supporters speak freely. Two solid conclusions emerged from these meetings. The first was that the old logo, affectionately known as the Crayon Flag, had to go. While some people loved it, many more wanted a more modern look. Second, the team’s name had to remain. That surprised Irish-born, Liverpool-backed Conlon.

“My opinion was that we need to change the name of the team,” he said. “I couldn’t have been more wrong. When you actually asked the fans and listened to them, they said the name was right, they got it right in 1996.”

With these instructions, it was a little easier to narrow down the choices going forward.

Obtaining supporters’ approval is crucial as this can help a club avoid mistakes such as using symbols that can easily be misunderstood, such as: the Crown and Chicago, but it also encourages backers to be a little more charitable when the eventual rebrand launches (or, as often happens, leaks). After all, the quality of a logo is something subjective. Fans and support groups who are incentivized to support the outcome because they feel they are part of the process can go a long way in creating a positive reception.

This is not a cynical ploy; This is the reality of successfully changing something people love. With more fan input, Montreal might not have opted to change the name, which would not have created the need for a name change petition and an ugly scene all around. Fan groups around the MLS sympathize with their Canadian compatriots.

“It stinks that we have to feel sorry for another fandom,” said Section 8’s Dursun.

If a bad rebrand has a silver lining, perhaps it’s because MLS ownership groups can listen to their supporters, respond, and work to rebuild trust. Columbus put “crew” back into the name after the fan revolt. In May, Montreal announced a new logo after its disastrous launch in 2021. While the team will keep the CF Montreal name, the revised name is a nod to the club’s history.

“The staff, fans and partners we met have clearly expressed their desire to reinstate certain elements that have shaped the club’s history and are at the core of our identity,” said Joey Saputo, the club’s chief executive officer, in a statement in which he announced the club to News.

In Chicago, Dursun said he was part of a group of supporters being consulted about the Fire’s redesigned identity. He’s not entirely sure how far along the team was in the process when he received a Zoom call, but he still appreciated being part of the process. The relationship between the support groups and the Chicago owners is better than in the past.

In a few years, they might all be sitting back, drinking and laughing at the crown of fire while wearing jerseys emblazoned with their fiery new logo.

https://www.espn.com/soccer/major-league-soccer/story/4703806/why-mls-clubs-are-rebrandinghow-some-got-it-wrongand-why-thats-an-opportunity-to-build-fan-trust Why MLS clubs are rebranding, how some got it wrong, and why that’s an opportunity to build fan trust

Emma Bowman

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