Washington Redskins Brand Debate

4th November 2014

The current controversy over the Washington Redskins name and logo has been rolling on since last year. In fact, this same issue has actually be debated in one manner or another for the last couple of decades, since the early 1970s. However, the last few months have seen an increase in the debate with many high profile names having their say including Jon Stewart, South Park and Matthew McConaughey who weighed in last month in support of retaining the name.

The problem stems from the use of the term ‘redskin’ which is deemed offensive to the Native American community. In June, the United States Patent and Trademark Office revoked the trademarks on the Redskins’ brand due to the name being seen as ‘disparaging’. Last month, Etsy removed and banned the sale of any items bearing the Redskins’ name or logo for the same reason. There is a gradual shift in perspectives taking place with many quarters being unwilling to get caught in the crossfire of the debate and taking proactive action to distance themselves from the football team’s brand. Whilst such a large and popular entity as Washington is never going to lose their loyal following, their brand is steadily becoming a problem and it is only likely to get worse for them.

Sea changes of this type – where a long standing term or emblem becomes socially or politically unpopular – are not uncommon, particularly when dealing with cultural epithets. Throughout most of the last century, Robertson’s jams used a ‘golliwog’ character in its branding. Vociferous complaints and increasing pressure throughout the 1980s caused the company to cease using the character in its advertising (although its campaign of sending in coupons for ‘Golly’ badges continued until as late as 2001). The evolution of racial identities over the last half century has led to many such changes in attitudes towards previously accepted brand symbols and word marks. The Washington Redskins are just the latest step stone in an ongoing process of shifting sensibilities.

National Congress of Native Americans advert

And the Redskins are not alone. In August, a senate resolution was placed in Ohio urging the Cleveland Indians to drop use of their mascot, Chief Wahoo. There are similar calls for the Edmonton Eskimos to alter their name. Despite this, the team itself seem unwilling to entertain thoughts of a change in their brand. Washington’s owner, Daniel Snyder, adamantly declared that the team would never change its name when interviewed last year.

This is an interesting contrast with the moves taken by Banh Shop to deal with complaints of cultural insensitivity when they launched in August. In that case, the company immediately withdrew the logo and worked to correct the situation. However, that logo had no equity or fan loyalty built into it that would cause problems with a rebrand. There was no tradition in place, no heritage that could have been used as a reason for retaining the offending element. Also, despite the logo change costing Banh Shop’s parent company a significant amount financially, it pales in comparison to the revenue generated by an NFL football team. Rebranding Washington would mean overhauling all team merchandise, from replica jerseys to flags, cups and key rings. The money involved would be astronomical.

Ultimately, despite the growing calls for the team to alter their brand, at this point it seems unlikely that such a move will be taken. There is still a significant amount of support for the team and still many commentators who are willing to endorse retention of the name. However, debates of this type rarely die down. Rather, they tend to increase in pressure and inevitably lead to an eventual change. The question is whether the team should wait until that tipping point or make a proactive move before then to transition, then concentrate their energies on building loyalty and support for a new brand.