Studio Ostendo operates in multiple creative fields including photography, design, and education.
After rightfully dropping the “Washington Redskins” name and brand identity in July 2020, their name since 1932 and an offensive Native American slur, the Washington football program has dwelled in the nebulous of the unknown.
Unfortunately, two years of contemplation hasn't led to an identity that rises to our contemporary ideas of what brand identities can be.
While the Washington football team isn't the only professional sports team with a modern history of representing people (see the New England Patriots representing a white male as their brand identity marker as opposed to any other gender or race), they have been the ones most in the spotlight—and most fervently against the change.
Washington Owner Daniel Snyder told USA Today in 2013 he’d never change the program name, saying, “It’s that simple. NEVER—you can use caps,” he said.
As the socio-political call to remove racist and offensive imagery from American culture grew louder and more powerful following outcry of social justice issues in early 2020, such brand identities came under pressure.
In the wake, the team became known as the “Washington Football Team” as they were without replacement of name or branding. On par with the name’s inventiveness, the visual brand became represented by a bold yellow W on a burgundy backdrop.
Now, in early 2022, The Washington Football Team has announced their new brand identity as the “Washington Commanders”.
Similarly represented by a bold W, the new brand mark now has a few slashes that make it look as though it would be folded like an accordion (a phrase sometimes used when one football player tackles another so hard they ‘fold’ at the knees and waist). This W is paired with a generic bold, condensed typeface nostalgic to more difficult modes of jersey production. The word “commanders” is of course all caps, and helped along by a seal that looks like a rebranding exercise for a minor league soccer team in Europe—the new identity falls far short of impressive, if not outright uninspired.
The biggest challenge in designing an identity for a major sports program like an NFL team isn't coming up with interesting visuals (or at least it shouldn't be coming up with interesting visuals). The biggest challenge is incorporating everything that is represented, sold, and celebrated by stakeholders of the brand.
A corporate brand identity doesn't necessarily need to identify the people of the organization. Rather, it serves to identify the products, the service or the output, which in the case of an NFL team is entertainment—the primary audience being fans. In sports programs, as is similar to colleges and universities, the identity system also has to function to represent the people. Something they should know in Washington DC.
Sports brands have to represent the people whom they identify.
In the case of the Washington Commanders, the players, the coaches, and the staff are all contributors to the perception of the brand identity, not to mention the organization's win/loss record.
Martin Conway, a professor of sports business at Georgetown University, says “In sports, no matter what you’re talking about from a brand and marketing point of view, you cannot outrun your record.”
It's nearly impossible to separate athletes from the teams that they're known for. For example, we can't quite separate Michael Jordan from the Chicago Bulls even though he also played for the Washington Wizards, Brett Favre from the Green Bay Packers, or Lionel Messi from FC Barcelona. Athletes contribute to the perception of the brand identity just as much as the brand identity contributes to our view of those players. This type of representation functions differently than a swoosh logo on a tennis shoe or app designed to sell that product or that service.
The new brand identity for the Washington Commanders has this idea fundamentally wrong—they have chosen to prioritize their corporate audience over the players and fans.
“Commander” is a term pulled from military structure and hierarchy, which does fit perfectly with football seeing as it's a metaphor for warfare of the late 1800s. There’s a reason the space between offensive and defensive lines is called “the trenches”. Officially adopted by the American Professional Football Association—later known as the National Football League—in 1920, football’s connotation and analogous structure to traditional warfare is impossible to separate. Choosing a name that comes from that metaphor admittedly makes sense even if it is antiquated.
The issue, however, is that the military is not built on a team of commanders. A commander is usually one individual, one person, who commands others. This is inherently flawed when we're speaking about an entire organization that’s supposed to work together to win NFL championships and to sell jerseys, cups, hats, and seats in the stadium. The other issue with the name commander is in relationship to the audience.
In our contemporary work and life structures, people don't want to be commanded. Led perhaps, but not commanded. With new organizations of work being individual and collaborative and collective, the egalitarian ideals of our work relationships outshine those of a commander/worker hierarchy. The new Washington Commanders’s brand asks audience members to identify with a team who deems themselves commanders.
On March 23rd, 2020 the former St. Louis Rams were purchased by the city of Los Angeles and the franchise moved 1826 miles and officially received their new brand as the LA Rams. Now, I have a soft spot for the Rams growing up in the Marshall Faulk era, and because Fred Gehrke was the one who painted the original stripes on their helmets in 1948 (then the Cleveland Rams), single handedly inventing sports branding in the NFL. But the modern-era transition of the Rams from St. Louis to LA shows us the strength of building a brand identity off the back of a mascot instead of the name of the city.
“It’s important to remember that team brands are built over time, as familiarity and—ideally—a winning record slowly integrate it into that city’s cultural system.” Jeff Beer, Fast Company.
If the St. Louis Rams’ monogram would have been a capital S T O, bold, italic with some sharp serifs, the transition to the letters L and A would have been much more jarring. Thankfully, however, they backed their visuals off the imagery of ram's horns. LA's new brand identity simply updated the color palette and brought them into a more contemporary visual culture. The success in the brand identity design for the LA Rams is also rooted in its long history of the horns. As the first team with designs on the helmet, the Rams’ helmet designs have gone largely unchanged, just slightly altered to keep up with the times.
Washington's new mark, in contrast, is rooted in its two years of the abyss. I imagine after dropping their offensive branding that someone quickly slapped a capital W on the side of the helmet and said, “ship it!” spending as little resources on it as possible. Understandable given the circumstances.
This new brand identity for the Washington Commanders, however, leans on that poor thought input, unintentionally, and visual laziness. When the primary financial model of an NFL team is in apparel licensing, selling seats, and TV viewership and ad revenue, the last thing an organization wants is an identity that looks half-assed (as I imagine my father would phrase it).
Professional sports organizations need to invest their resources as heavily into graphic design as they do in their players and staff.
Every day analysts are viewing and rating players, writing checks, trading, and finding more money and more ways to empower players and coaches to do what they do best. What the Washington Commanders have done is belittled the role of the designer, held back the studio or not selected one at all and fumbled an incredible opportunity.