De-Branding the Crew

On Saturday, the Columbus Crew benefitted from a pair of own goals to pick up a big win. That was on the field. Off the field, the club was preparing to launch an epic own-goal of its own and take a big loss, as word leaked out about a disastrous rebrand that would remove the name Crew from the club’s official identity and replace the current logo with a vastly inferior alternative. It was all just rumor and innuendo to that point, but it nevertheless clouded Saturday’s otherwise sunny proceedings. The normally raucous Nordecke was devoid of banners in protest of the rebranding after getting a sneak peek the night before. In the second half, they made their feelings clear, repeatedly chanting:

C-R-E!
Double-U!
Fuck your rebrand!
We are the Crew!

By Sunday, the leaks leaked, the fans shrieked, and it was confirmed that the Crew weren’t rebranding so much as de-branding. The club will henceforth be saddled with the ham-handed blandness that is “Columbus SC.”

For a city that is so righteously indignant and self-conscious about always being referred to as “Columbus, Ohio” or “Columbus (OH)” lest be it confused with Columbus Wisconsin or whatever, it’s now going to be represented by a soccer club that will instantly make any non-Crew fan who sees the merch think the person wearing it is repping Columbus, South Carolina, which is a town that doesn’t even exist.

This is not how global brands are made.

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One way a global brand is made is to have soccer fans around the world rally around the effort to keep the Columbus Crew in Columbus, Ohio. The #SaveTheCrew movement generated so much awareness of the Crew brand around the soccer world that any inkling to ditch the Crew from the official club name should have been a non-starter. The Crew name engendered so much publicity and goodwill that it should have been untouchable. And it clearly meant the world to all the fans who fought so hard to save the club.

Realistically, it’s the Haslam and Edwards families who ultimately saved the Crew with their bajillions of dollars. And they said all the right things about respecting your roots and listening to the fans and being stewards of the club and so on.

In less than three years, they already accomplished the blueprint for immortality. Save the team. Build the stadium and surrounding real estate developments and the training facility. Throw in a fairy tale MLS Cup championship for good measure.

New ownership did all that. They already would have been revered forever. But then, besotted with success, they couldn’t help themselves from flying too close to the sun.

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Anthony Precourt couldn’t build a stadium in Columbus or win a championship or tell the truth or keep the doors on the stadium’s bathroom stalls or properly button his shirt, but he was around for a successful rebrand. Granted, the process started before he bought the team—fun fact: prior to the sale of the team, the name Columbus Athletic was under consideration—but the fact remains the rebrand process resumed under Precourt’s tenure and he ultimately had to sign off on the whole thing, which was produced in-house.

And it was a huge hit with the fans. The original hardhat logo, for all the attachment we eventually grew to accept, was objectively terrible. Uniquely terrible and even belovedly terrible, but terrible nonetheless. But in a way, it fit. Columbus was the first club in the league. The Columbus Crew built the first dedicated training facility in the league. The Columbus Crew built the first soccer-specific stadium in the league. Columbus was a builder in MLS, and that terrible logo eventually grew to mean something that actually represented something tangibly specific about our club, even if it had many other design flaws.

The new logo was a huge step forward, design-wise. And it’s one of the rare logos where the overwrought design-explainer thing actually made a lot of sense and enhanced the appreciation of the new logo. From the Ohio flag tributes in the circle to the checkerboard of the Nordecke flags to sticking a 96 in an outline in the shape of the original logo, it was really good. The only drawback was the superfluous “SC” designation that would be incessantly force-fed to the point of esophageal assault, and the stripes representing the other nine original clubs was a bit of cluttered overkill, but all in all, it was a really sharp design that most fans loved. It was still the Columbus Crew. It was still black and gold. And it was an incalculable improvement over the hardhat logo, as much as we grew to love it in its own weirdly fitting way. The new logo was a logical evolution that respected and expanded upon our roots. (Although we were unaware ownership was secretly angling to rip out those roots.)

With new, committed ownership and a new stadium on the way, I always figured a new Crew logo would soon be forthcoming, partly to wash off the Precourt stench and partly for new ownership to mark the epoch of what is truly a new era for the club in downtown Columbus. If anything, I figured it would be a mild evolution. Drop the godawful SC and re-center the word Crew, and maybe lose those busy stripes in favor of a full black and gold checkerboard. Or maybe some new logo involving the state of Ohio like the new twitter hashtag emoji or something evoking the #SaveTheCrew logo as an homage to the fans and the new owners alike. Or even maybe sneak a hardhat back in as a nod to building not one but TWO soccer stadiums in our city.

Or at least something uniquely Columbus and not something inexplicably and generically terrible resulting from a secretive process that backtracks on everything ownership and management has publicly said and done since the team was saved from Precourt’s malevolent blundering.

Speaking of which, there is another regrettable aspect of this rebranding disaster. In terms of the #SaveTheCrew saga, Columbus came out ahead of Austin in every conceivable way. Better owners, better stadium, and an MLS Cup championship team. But now Austin finally gets to claim a win. They now have a far superior logo. And theirs is a piece of broccoli.

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I know the name “Crew” isn’t being totally abandoned and the club still intends to reference and utilize the name in an unofficially official capacity like “Magpies” or “Toffees” or “Gunners” so we can be Euro-cool where our name isn’t our name, but while it’s not our name, it’s our name. Or whatever. There is already MLS precedent for this, where, for example, Minnesota United FC is unofficially the “Loons”, despite the fact that the Minnesota Loons would be a thousand percent better as a name that their trite fusion of generic soccer naming terms.

And apparently the thought is to move away from a circular logo because so many MLS teams are using circular logos now, so the Crew wants to be a leader and not a follower. Yet the club is following the well-worn MLS path of rebranding into (City) (FC/SC). There is nothing less unique, ambitious, and leader-y than that.

And then the logo itself is just…bad.

It’s not eye-catching in any way. There is nothing at all “Columbus” about it other than evoking presumptive references to the non-existent city of Columbus, South Carolina. A “C” logo is mundane in a state where its three largest cities are referred to as the Three Cs. The Indians, Reds, Cavaliers, Clippers, and Bearcats all have C logos, and there are plenty more C logos nationwide. Forget a “global” brand. This new C-letter branding isn’t a leading identity in its own city, state, or country. And if the C stands for “Crew”, which is dubious given that Columbus starts with a C and nobody outside of existing legacy Crew fans would know or have any reason to think it stands for “Crew”, why not just formally keep our unique and traditional name in the first place? The name Crew doesn’t need to appear in the logo for the club to be officially named Columbus Crew.

There are some who may scoff that any rebrand resistance is just because people don’t like change. But that wasn’t the case with the Precourt-era logo change. People readily embraced that new logo. I was one of those people. But this, from every possible angle, from conception to process to execution to timing, is a Massive misfire.

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Last month, Dee Haslam appeared on The Call Up podcast and spoke about taking care of the fanbase. She said, “One of the ways to take care of your fanbase is to make sure they have the information they need….have the fans involved in the process.”

And yet something as fundamentally monumental as changing the club’s name and logo was withheld until the last possible moment. The Nordecke issued the following statement:

The Nordecke is deeply saddened by the decision to rebrand the club, in the process stripping it of its name and heritage. The Crew has been the club’s name and heart since its inception, it has served our rallying cry when we had to save the team from relocation, and our unified cheer when we have seen victory. The Nordecke would also like to make clear that neither the Nordecke nor any Crew Supporters Group was involved at any time with the conception, development, or design of this rebrand. The Board was shown the rebrand in the last few days and it was presented to us as a completed product with no chance for input. Further, to our knowledge supporters used in any promotional materials were not told of the rebrand ahead of time and participated under the belief they were simply supporting their club.

We condemn these changes and, more importantly, the lack of transparency in this process and urge the team to reconsider with meaningful input from the Crew community.

In the meantime, we will continue to do what we always have: support the players, coaches, and community of Columbus Crew.

And I think that is what is most disheartening of all. For everyone to go through the fight to save the Crew, and to see an ownership group and management team that appeared to get it, and that said all the right things, and worked wonders in terms of the club’s physical infrastructure and in putting together a championship-winning team, only to spring a secret, surprise, unwanted, tone-deaf, and ugly rebrand onto the unsuspecting fanbase of the Columbus Crew.

According to Pat Murphy’s story over at Massive Report, there was division in the front office over whether to proceed with the rebrand. Sadly, it appears the sensible people were in the minority. And now the organization has to watch while what should have been a jubilant run up to the new stadium’s grand opening is instead bogged down with acrimony over a poorly-executed, unilateral de-brand that absolutely didn’t need to happen and is nobody’s fault but their own.

The next two months should have sparked nothing but joy, but now, out of nowhere and for no rational reason, the club has decided to be its own wet blanket.

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So as we head into the new stadium, the Crew are no longer officially the Crew, and they are no longer the yellow soccer team, having ceded our traditional and instantly recognizable identity to Nashville SC. Perhaps it was a trade since we have now blatantly copied their name with Columbus SC.  (“We will give you our unique and instantly recognizable traditional uniforms if you agree to let us copy your uninspiringly generic name.” “Yeehaw! Deal!”)

I guess if there’s any solace for those who are upset by this, it’s that the Haslams have experience desecrating tradition with a universally mocked and reviled redesign of the Cleveland Browns, only to reverse course at the first opportunity. They ultimately listened to the fans. Granted, the shade of orange is still noticeably wrong, but watching Browns games feels like watching Browns games again. (Except for the part where they are exciting and winning for the first time in decades.)

Hopefully history repeats itself and someday in the near future we will get to watch our yellow soccer team, the Columbus Crew, take the field once again.

Until then, well, there’s still a lot to love. It’s not like this terrible decision cancels out all the great things that have been happening. That Lucas Zelarayan guy is pretty good at soccering. And the new stadium looks awesome. And Columbus is the defending champion of Major League Soccer. It’s just that ownership and management have gotten so much right that it makes this unforced error all the more puzzling and glaring and disappointing and infuriating.

Then again, the Crew have won precisely one MLS Cup per logo. It immediately occurred to me that perhaps I am underthinking the whole thing and this is a genius-level masterstroke designed to aid in a 2021 repeat, which would explain the mid-season branding switch and its underwhelming lack of quality. They needed to rush that sucker out the door in time to help hoist another MLS Cup in the new stadium’s first season.

It’s a high-risk, high-reward strategy. If it results in a 9-0 MLS Cup thrashing of the Seattle Sounders in New SC Stadium, so be it. Regardless of the branding change, the fans will be rejoicing in Ohio. And South Carolina. And Seychelles.

A global brand indeed.

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My latest book “A Massive Collection, Volume 1” is now available!

Paperback at Amazon.
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Also, for those who like to support local businesses, signed paperback copies are available at Prologue Bookshop in the Short North.

Email: sirk65@yahoo.com
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