Creative Brand Strategy Agency Advice

How should agencies navigate a hostile fan response to sports rebrands?


By Sam Bradley, Journalist

July 21, 2022 | 11 min read

Each week, we ask agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points.

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How should design agencies approach tricky sports branding gigs? / The Drum

This week for our deep dive into sports marketing, we consider the tricky brief of designing for a die-hard fan base.

Most designers and agency creatives would kill to have an audience that actually cares about the minutiae of their work. Few get that privilege.

And designers who take on a rebranding or redesigning gig for sports brands may end up regretting that desire – because nobody cares quite as much about a new kit, badge or typographic element as a lifelong fan.

How should agencies approach these delicate briefs? Earlier this week, we asked agency experts across the globe for their take. Here’s the second half.

How do you solve a problem like... designing for passionate sports fans?

jon hewitt

Jon Hewitt, creative director, Re London

Designing for sports clubs isn’t like designing for any other business because sports clubs aren’t ‘owned’ in the same way as other businesses. There’s a legal owner of that club, and then there are the real owners – the fans who have been there, rain or shine, for generations. They’re the ones who’ll still be there after the club gets sold.

So when we take a design brief from a club we need the fans to be part of the process – offering insights, understanding why design decisions are being made and, ultimately, loving the work so they can champion it.

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Mark Shanley, creative director, Adam & Eve/DDB

The problem with designing for passionate sports fans is the sheer amount of design and content required for the modern sporting organization. Take football, for example. Three kits a season with three launch campaigns. Always on social feeds. Apps. TV channels. Countless brand partnerships. And that’s on top of all of the traditional stuff such as matchday programs. With churn like that, standards drop. And fans get frustrated when the work for their club isn’t good enough – or worse, when it’s not representative of them and their passion.

You’ll never know or love their team like they do. But here’s a novel idea if you don’t want to piss off the fans – try involving them in the process. As a Man United fan who has designed for Liverpool and an Irishman who’s created multiple campaigns for England, I can assure you that you don’t need to actually be a fan – you just need to talk to them.

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Sammi Bassman, senior strategist, FutureBrand

Almost all rebrands in sports have some backlash, yet almost no current sports teams have the same logo they did 30 years ago. For many existing fans, the rich history of their sports teams appeals. But for brands to retain relevance, they need to market to new audiences beyond the hardcore base.

When subject to scrutiny, you must do your homework. Lean into the legacy. Embrace and celebrate the team’s rich history through design. Move too far from its heritage and you could find yourself in choppy waters. Look for local treasures and symbols that local fans already cherish – many fanbases are global, but the teams exist in a physical location.

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Matthew Koval, senior designer, Interbrand

In the famous words of Wayne Gretzky: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” When you’re designing for a team with die-hard fans, yes, you need to understand the history and community, but what you’re really after is an unspoken language: attitude. As a designer, you’re searching for this in symbols, moments and lexicon to unite the fanbase toward a clearer articulation of that shared attitude. While every fan has their own unique style and connection to the team, when you can visualize that invisible feeling you help move fans forward with their team.

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Nikki Cunningham, managing director, Curious

Nostalgia plays a big role in this space – people don’t like change. So in order to win, you need to figure out how to speak to fans. Tap into what they care about. As with any brand, getting an understanding of your audience is central to the overall success of how you visually express it.

Don’t change for the sake of change – in the world of sports brands, less is more. Club identities tend to be formed from very symbolic ideas, so they shouldn’t be ignored. Time needs to be spent understanding the origins, and then working out how to evolve it without losing the original thought.

Remain true to the origins and respect the fans and you’ll win. Don’t, and you risk relegation.

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Helen Jambunathan, associate insight director, Canvas8

Sports fans are custodians of their club brands – and visual branding is a focal point of their engagement. Research from the University of Wisconsin showed the effect of team identification on brand attitude and purchase intention in terms of team logo changes. It found that sports fans are likely to reject visual branding updates unless they feel involved. Designers would do well to treat fans as serious stakeholders and let them ‘into’ the rebranding process. This not only minimizes pushback, but also lets designers tap into fans’ intimate understandings of club identity and legacy. Designing for fans is about leaning into their sense of ownership.

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Henry Brown, senior designer, Lantern

Suppress your design ego. As a designer, it’s hugely tempting to jump straight into crafting something beautiful. This alone, however, will never win over sports fans. Engaging with a huge set of stakeholders is never easy, especially when they’re all emotionally invested.

Most initial reactions to change are negative, and this is amplified when fans don’t feel like they’ve been listened to. Rather than focusing on the end result, designers need to engage with the fan community as much as possible. Workshops, surveys and interviews are all ways of doing this.

A design can’t and won’t please everyone, but as long as a fan feels listened to and made part of the process, your design is likely to be cheered, not booed off the pitch.

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Tracy Wong, chairman, Wongdoody

Be a fan. We’ve done branding and design for four NBA teams and the NBA itself. There’s an expression on the court: “Game knows game.” Every detail – acronym, slang – must be perfect. No game and you’re dead.

Get fans closer to the talent. Our first Gold Lion came from dropping NBA superstars into the homes of unsuspecting Seattle Supersonic fans. This month, our spot for Cisco Webex gave F1 fans an insight into Norris and Ricciardo off the track.

Here’s the kicker – avid fans hate change. The real money is in growing a new audience without messing anything up for the superfans.

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Juliana Ardila, associate creative director, Saatchi & Saatchi

When we design for brands with such an extensive visual legacy, as is the case in sports, authenticity and consideration must be at the core. To make an authentic design you must capture something – or someone – with genuineness, truthfulness and facts. It is crucial to conduct proper research. What’s the story? Who are these icons and why? Fans know this by heart.

You need to get it right before translating it into a design. By becoming a fan yourself, you can achieve meaningful work that represents the brand and all the people who support it.

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Dean Field, creative director, Coley Porter Bell

Rebranding a sports team is one of those jobs a designer wishes for, and football fans are arguably the most loyal consumers in the world. But their passion can turn into a torrent of abuse when things go wrong, often directed at both the club and agency. See Leeds FC’s 2018 refresh, or even Wolff Olins’s work for the 2012 Olympics, which was hotly debated.

To ensure success, it’s vital to review why a refresh is so important to the team in the first place. How does it connect to its fans? By ensuring the idea is a well-articulated, compelling story, you can bring fans on the journey with you. It may seem time-consuming, but ignore them at your peril.

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Steve Ubsdell, chief executive and chief creative officer, Checkland Kindleysides

A sports club needs to actively contribute to the tribal culture of its fans by driving the future narratives, rather than relying on lazy imitations of what’s been heard from the terraces. Otherwise, work can be seen as disingenuous and presents the club as sitting on the outside looking in.

To build true credibility and connection with its fans, an agency’s creative needs to take influence from the tribe, but invoke a far more progressive attitude and re-imagine the ingredients into something new for tomorrow.

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Paige Hopper, creative director, MKG

Enduring brands are masters of subtle refreshes, always retaining beloved familiarity while implementing modern updates. They understand consumers’ attitudinal motivations in order to inspire design opportunities.

But sports fans aren’t your average consumers. They’re radically opinionated and replace sarcastic tweets with public outcry.

Pre-design research ensures we understand brand equity and place value on fan insights over preferences. Intrinsically understanding our fans from the start builds emotional connectivity. Emotional connectivity strengthens brand loyalty.

At the end of the day, we aren’t designing for the brand, we’re designing for the fan. And great design always starts with great research.

stuart wood

Stuart Wood, co-founder, Missouri

Sports brands are understood by a combination of myth, folklore and legend – they are built into our collective conscious. And like just like other brands, they need to evolve. But taking the hardcore on the journey is imperative – look at the fan pressure on owner Vincent Tam after changing Cardiff City (known as the Bluebirds) to red. A definite own goal. Conversely, there was outrage when Juventus rebranded in 2017, but it has now become an icon across the world, transcending sport and defining a lifestyle.

There have been great examples of how to build the fans into the fabric of the club legend. The Man City 11/12 kit featured the audio waves of the Cityzens singing Blue Moon, modeled by superfan Liam Gallagher.

So, a deep understanding of the club and a considered and collaborative approach? Definitely. Category-defining disruption? Maybe.

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