‘It’s like rebranding Coca-Cola’: Uncommon and EA Sports on tackling Fifa reinvention
Fifa is no more. Long live EA Sports FC. But will the new brand stick with gamers?
As the final whistle blows on an iconic 30-year partnership between Fifa and EA Sports, we sit down with the brand and its creative agency Uncommon who are tasked with reinventing the world’s most successful video game franchise.
Fifa International Soccer, (it wasn’t always Fifa), was released on Christmas 1996. Grayer players have a strong nostalgia for the memorable 8-bit graphics. Decades later, it’s a far cry from the ultra-realistic graphics, impactful physics, and vast database of licensed players we see now.
The release of Fifa 23 last year was touted as “record-breaking” and hit 10.3m players in its first week. Overall, the franchise has sold in excess of 325m copies and has around 150m players. For many, Fifa is shorthand for football. That’s a problem for EA Sports which no longer has the right to use that license.
The biggest challenge
David Jackson (DJ), vice president of brand at EA Sports FC, has been busy this year, creating another brand that can thrive for 30 years. “It’s probably one of the biggest marketing challenges that I’ve been made aware of in my time in the industry. One of our most senior executives likened it to rebranding Coca-Cola,” he explains.
“It’s so ingrained in the hearts and minds of fans all over the world and they each have their own very individual experience with the brand and the product.”
Jackson isn’t shy about the hurdles they had to overcome.
“We approached it with a great deal of respect in terms of the brief and picking the right teammates to guide us through this journey,” he continues. “It’s exciting. What an opportunity to give to the team. What a moment for EA and EA Sports to enter with a huge amount of bravery and positive intent, but it was a big challenge.”
The hardest part was picking up a pen and paper and "making a start," says Jackson. Having to reflect on 30 years of games in the work weighed heavily.
There were two big challenges.
One was to find a name that was universally accepted. It had to be short and snappy.
The other was to create an identity that stood out in a crowded marketplace. This was where the team at Uncommon lent its expertise, an agency that counts B&Q, Formula E and British Airways in its roster.
“We had heard of Uncommon. It has this incredible, bright sense of itself and is quite counter-culture and meaningfully antagonistic. We love that,” says Jackson.
EA Sports approached the agency with the brief. Surprisingly, it wasn’t an immediate fit.
“Initially, what we got back was maybe what Uncommon wanted us to hear and we didn’t really like that, we wanted to hear what they had to say.”
So Jackson called the agency’s founder Nils Leonard late one Friday night and had a frank discussion. “I said, ‘Look do you want it because it doesn’t feel like you want this brief?’ It’s important to get this right and we know you’re the right agency.
“Nils response spoke to us and to the competitive spirit of EA Sports. He asked us whether we wanted it, if were we intentional around it, and if we would allow the agency to deliver all of itself into the response. And that was the contract between us.”
Leonard echoed this. “The initial conversations were far too polite, farty and dancing around the edges. We had suspicions, did the guys at EA Sports want to do something good, powerful and remarkable, or just slightly evolve things? DJ then jumps on the phone and kicks my ass about it all. I walked into the studio the next day and we were on,” the creative explains.
He was intent on producing a campaign that didn’t just raise the game’s profile, but the category as a whole. “The right kind of client relationship is it’s not about having a long lunch with each other, it’s about the candor, the honesty and holding each other to a level.”
Trying the triangle
Leonard is open to criticism of his work too. “People might not like the logo but it’s out there, it’s powerful, original, new, and has a story behind it that I think is incredibly potent.” He laughs that when he’s 60 years old, that logo will still be on the cover of the games.
It’s a story that was hiding in plain sight, he explains, but the first mountain to climb was getting players to understand that it would be called ‘EA Sports FC’ going forward. “It was really important that was established in the vernacular, that people understood it was going to be called that and as quickly as possible,” Leonard says. “We created an icon for those two letters, for that phrase, to become famous and something that people could repeat, see and get used to.”
His team was hunting for that at the same time as searching for the icon for the idea of the brand. Something that encapsulates what EA Sports FC stands for. The eureka moment came from Uncommon’s head of design, who realized the letters ‘FC’ look like triangles seen above players in the game. “Immediately my head went deep like I’ve been shown a magic trick I didn’t realize,”
The triangles were always there in plain sight. Leonard says: “All you’re trying to do is tease out truths. It dawned on me that we’ve been looking at this symbol of control, power really, above the players for 30-odd years. We’ve been looking at football use triangles to create teams, winning formulas, moments of magic and then no one had harnessed it.”
“It was a bit of a lightning bolt,” remembers Jackson, noting that there were so many directions this project could have gone but that whatever happened the rebrand had to stand next to the Premier League, Uefa and resonate while being eye-catching.
“If you ask people to draw a triangle, they will do it like a pyramid. Top-down, one controlling many. It is basically the way football has been run for a while now," he says, perhaps a parting blow at the previous licensee. "Modern football is the very few, controlling the passions of many people. When you invert that [the triangle], that symbol of control changes.”
Those changes have rippled through the entire brand with Uncommon developing a new photography style for EA Sports FC, which puts fans in the heart of the game. “The category, in general, had gone a bit lens flare, had gone a little bit slick, and actually, there was a sense of just wanting to bring people closer,” notes Leonard. “But this wasn’t purely an aesthetic challenge. There’s a lot of language, principles and narratives behind this that I think it’s going to inform all the decisions as we go forward. Everything from what happens in the game experience to how we communicate with the community and how they embrace the game.”
The marketer adds that the media spend on this huge project will be significant to drive awareness and engage fans. “It’s a real challenge for us. It was Fifa and now it's FC. How do you create that transition point? We’ll do it through football. That’s where our brand lives best.”
Like this article? Read our recent interview with Nils Leonard about his life and career.