The Challenge of Rebranding in Sports

A few weeks ago, I was sat in a local pub enjoying a jam-packed afternoon of sport. A pretty good day, you might say.

I got talking to a friend about the Glasgow Warriors rugby team. Knowing he was a big fan, I casually dropped into conversation that Good had worked on the club’s recent rebrand. I must admit; his reaction left me a little deflated. Because it wasn’t great.

While he’s obviously entitled to his own opinion, I couldn’t help but feel he was slightly missing the point behind the project. And I suspect I’m not the only designer who’s ever felt that way when dealing with the rebrand of a sports team.

It got me thinking about rebrands and brand evolutions in general. From a design perspective, they usually make perfect sense and can be pretty straight-forward; Your client feels the need for a refresh and you try to solve the challenges associated with that. Nothing new there. But there’s always a risk that what you create won’t sit well with the brand’s audience. And that’s hard to escape because a lot of people instinctively react negatively to change.

With all that in mind, corporate rebrands still seem to fly a lot easier than those in the world of sports. Consider the reaction to F1’s recent rebranding or when Leeds United unveiled their new badge in 2019. It feels as though the potential for a negative reaction to a rebrand is inherently higher when you’re dealing with an established sporting organisation.

So why is that? Are sports fans are so emotionally invested in their clubs that they can’t stand you tampering with them? Is it because they feel ignored, like they haven’t been considered during the process? Or is it purely a case of the audience focusing solely on aesthetic output, without the context and underlying reasons behind the rebrand?

Whatever it is (and it’s likely a combination of all the above), I can see why making changes to these brands often leads to so much outcry. But crucially, as a designer, your goal shouldn’t necessarily be to please all the fans all of the time. You have a much wider audience, and a broader set of challenges that must be considered within your brief. Your job is often to look at the bigger picture, essentially future proofing the brand to function in a modern world.

…and that’s the key word here; future. It’s the reason brands have to modernise in the first place. There’s often not much choice as to whether or not they actually want to; either you evolve and try to keep up with a fast-moving world, or you fall behind and deal with the many risks inherent in doing so.

A closer look at sporting organisations around over the last decade or so reveals a trend; Old, well-established brands forced to change because their brand identities were established long before we spent so much of our time looking at screens. Many of those brand identities grew organically over time and just aren’t compatible with the digital age. Suddenly all that heritage and design intricacy has become a problem. And the only way of staying ahead of the game is to change things up – often by simplifying your visual identity.

Adopting a “less is more” approach and simplifying brands to make them visually cleaner often makes sense. A less detailed logo, for example, would in theory work better on screen, and elsewhere. In this day and age, it’s important to remember that a brand lives in more than one place and it’s essential you design with that in mind.

A great example is Juventus FC and how they used their 2017 brand evolution to “go beyond football”. What’s tricky is finding the balance between adapting to the future without losing the sense of status and tradition.

One club that perhaps didn’t manage to balance the two (at least according to fans) is Everton FC. In an open letter the club received regarding the removal of their long-used Latin slogan, one fan stated:

"I am not against change, I am not a fan who is ‘stuck in the past’ and I absolutely acknowledge the need of the club to modernise the badge for various reasons. What I cannot accept however, is the way in which a small group of faceless individuals have torn the heart out of a key part of the identity of our club”.

Ouch, that must have hurt. It also highlights the need for designers to pitch the balance perfectly between design practicalities and emotional resonance with a hardcore, passionate fanbase.

One club that appears to be getting this balance just right is the recently launched Inter Miami CF. The reveal of Mr Beckham’s freshly designed club branding hasn’t gone unnoticed and I, for one, really like it. Admittedly it’s a rare example of a high-profile organisation like this being able to design from scratch without having to consider any old branding, but the underlying design feels well considered.

The whole thing is cleverly constructed with a modern approach to brand identity. It’s a bit like Lego really, pick it apart and you’ll have parts that work on their own but that also seamlessly click together – which is exactly how brands have to function today.

So, what is there to learn from all this? It seems tricky to escape the wrath of fans when changing the look and feel of a sport brand, and as a designer it’s near impossible to please every single one of them. But perhaps leaders of the organisation can have an impact by changing their approach in the first instance.

If they include the fans from the get-go, help them understand the relevance of the work and ensure they remain involved throughout the process, then perhaps change can be not only justified but welcomed.

In that case, a happy ending wouldn’t be so unattainable after all.