The De-Brand Debacle: It’s Time to Re-Respect Our Roots

I took no joy in writing that De-Branding the Crew piece earlier this week. I much prefer fun to glum. I did, however, need to get my own thoughts on paper and maybe try to give voice to those who felt the same way but didn’t know how to convey it without, like, ripping off their shirts. Due to life stuff, it had to be written quickly and without obsessive revision, which I can live with because urgent writing befits an urgent situation. (Due to real life, this piece must be written in the same manner,)

I say this with no degree of pleasure or accomplishment whatsoever, but Monday’s piece turned out to be the most-read blog post I have ever written. In fact, it got three times the page views as the most popular of the 51 entries I posted about MLS Cup 2020.

It is but one small anecdotal data point, but when a rebrand generates three times the peak emotion of an MLS Cup win, but in reverse, that is not a sign of a successful endeavor.

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Although it’s hard to believe, it seems some of the Columbus Crew’s ownership and leadership were genuinely stunned by the swift and universal opposition to the new rebrand. I would think they wouldn’t have gone through with it if they’d actually grasped the reality of what was about to transpire. For those who truly believed this would be a well-received step forward, I’m sure it hurt to find out that the thing they were so excited about and couldn’t wait to share with the world was met with such hostility and contempt. I’d imagine the defensive temptation was to assume it was just a small cadre of internet cranks, or that the whole thing would blow over, or that people simply struggle with change of any kind, or that everyone would come around if they just heard their side of the story again about a global brand or how taking the name Crew out of the official name constituted doubling down on the name Crew because it would be referenced in other ways, like when fans buy a halftime hotdog.

But it wasn’t just a small cadre of internet cranks. The condemnation of the new logo and club name has come from everywhere. Taking the name Crew out of the official club name has earned scorn from not only Columbus Crew fans, but also observers at the city, state, national, and global levels. The new logo is derided by not only Columbus Crew fans and soccer fans all over, but on its general merits by graphic design and marketing professionals with no dog in this fight. To be necessarily blunt, as the throes of an ongoing crisis is no time for tip-toeing, the new logo is an ugly nothingburger of a logo. No visual appeal, no heart or soul, and no story to tell about our city or our club. It’s an abject failure by an measure.

This isn’t a mixed bag situation based on varying personal tastes. The verdict on the name change and new logo is unambiguously clear and has brought about an avalanche of negative publicity and press coverage from every conceivable direction.

It’s something can’t be wished or willed away.

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I think most everyone knew and expected a rebrand of some sort was coming. New ownership and a new stadium leading into a new era is a natural time to freshen things up and put the new ownership’s personal stamp on things. I think we can at least understand the urge to mark one’s territory, especially to create distance from the destruction done by prior ownership. And the club had publicly stated a rebrand was being explored.

The thing is, rebranding a name and logo so popular with the fans is always going to be a high-risk, low-reward proposition. You’ve got to nail it. It’s got to improve on what already exists. At the very least, it’s got to be a lateral move. You do it perfectly, and there might be some small incremental gains to be had. If you do it badly, the results can be, as some might presciently predict, “catastrophic.”

And that’s where we are.

It’s time for Columbus Crew ownership and leadership to face the situation as it is, not as it was envisioned it be. Or how they think it should be. Or how they think it could be if they just explained it a hundred more times to an unreceptive audience. That ship has already sailed. Reality is what it is. The new logo and removing the name Crew from the official club name is an unqualified disaster.

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The original Columbus Crew logo was bad, but it was uniquely bad. It still felt like something all our own. And it had an identity that told a story. There was an aspirational ethos to it. We had those hard hats and we were America’s Hardest Working Team. And when fans of other teams made fun of us by calling us the Village People, that was actually kinda funny. We could roll with that.

The other thing about that logo is that since there was some visual substance to it, it also had room to grow. As Columbus built the first training facility and then the first soccer-specific stadium, those hard hats grew to represent something more. That first logo grew to represent our role as the builders within MLS. First club. First training facility. First stadium. The Columbus Crew built stuff.

The logo in its existing form was still bad and it didn’t even say Columbus on it, so a rebrand was inevitable. Naturally, the process culminated in 2014 after an ownership change the year prior. I know it seems counterintuitive that a logo born in the Anthony Precourt era would have so many defenders. After all, he is the greatest villain in our history and it makes perfect sense to erase all vestiges of his existence from anything to do with the Columbus Crew.

But I think most Columbus Crew fans know that the existing logo had next to nothing to do with Anthony Precourt. It was a logo designed by in-house creatives Will Bennett and Eric Sinicki. It was a process overseen by Arica Kress. This was a logo created by people who are intimately familiar with the city and club. It was a logo designed by Columbus, for Columbus, and it told the story of the Columbus Crew. The name Columbus Crew, the “O” from the Ohio flag, the checkerboard for the Nordecke flags, the year 96 within the shape of club’s original logo over a sea of nine stripes to represent that the Columbus Crew was the first of the league’s ten charter members, the roundel shape representing the city’s German heritage, the arching wordmark as a nod to the Short North arches. There was so much love and care and club-centric and city-centric symbolism that went into that logo. It told a story and it was also widely-considered to be one of the best logos in the league. It popped, visually.

I will never forget the roar of approval from Columbus Crew fans when the new logo was unveiled at the LC Pavilion launch party in 2014. My heart overflowed with pride for Bennett, Sinicki, Kress and others who spent so much time and effort in making sure they understood everything and got it right, and then were rewarded with that genuine burst of validation for a job well done. Change isn’t hard when it’s change done right.

They even evolved the name Crew to represent the fans. Our “crew” was a “tight-knit group of people who comes together to share a passion for the club and the sport of soccer.” So we had a “crew” that built MLS and now a “crew” that’s a tightly-knit Columbus community. Both of those things are true. The name “Columbus Crew” is essential to all our identities.

The only misstep they made was force-feeding the mandatory use of “SC.” Many fans resented the clumsy appellation, or at least being forced to say it on every reference. Honestly, this new rebrand could have consisted of removing the SC from the existing logo and re-centering the word Crew at the bottom and it would have been a glowing success and yet another example of how new ownership and management “gets us” and are stewards of our club.

Instead, they removed the wrong word from Columbus Crew SC. By erasing “Crew”, they literally erased the fans. And historically, they erased the builders, which erased not only Lamar Hunt, but themselves. So they’ve erased the fans and themselves from the club’s official name. And to accompany the bland conformity of “Columbus SC”, they unveiled a generic and visually unappealing logo that says nothing about anything. Based on the passionate response, it’s a logo that Columbus Crew fans are embarrassed to be associated with and plan to boycott. Heck, they even have social media influencers slyly dropping their gifted new gear into the garbage while talking about their love of the Columbus Crew and patting the existing logo over their heart.

I know this isn’t what Columbus Crew ownership and leadership envisioned or intended or wanted. But it’s the world as it really is.

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This week has been rough on everyone. Nobody wants Columbus Crew ownership and leadership to be seen as the opposition. There is no fun in this fight. Columbus Crew fans are already emotionally exhausted from fighting for the existence of their club. The current ownership and leadership had the money and the acumen and the vision and the desire to make the #SaveTheCrew fight winnable. They are Columbus Crew legends. They’re building a world-class downtown stadium and a training facility that also retains the national soccer landmark that is Historic Crew Stadium. They are Columbus Crew legends. They invested the money and made the hiring and talent decisions that brought a second MLS Cup championship to Columbus. They are Columbus Crew legends.

Then they did the only conceivable thing that could ruin the euphoria of this new era. Columbus Crew fans never saw it coming. Columbus Crew ownership and leadership could do no wrong in fans’ eyes, and then they went and changed the very name of the club and ditched a popular logo for an embarrassing one. It hurt twice as much because such a misstep that was so out of line with fan sentiment and was the last thing anyone ever expected from these Columbus Crew saviors. Fans were true believers that local ownership and management based on self-professed stewardship would be a partnership that would flourish together. The fans felt understood and valued. And then this rebrand made them feel misunderstood and disposable. This rebrand fractured the idealized narrative that had taken root within the Columbus Crew community. It’s a foundational crack that can’t be ignored or left unrepaired.

A rebrand this poorly conceived would have been poorly received under any circumstances, but in the aftermath of the #SaveTheCrew fight, it is infinitely more upsetting. Now a weary fanbase who just wanted to take a break from existential anxiety to enjoy some monumentally wonderful things that Columbus Crew ownership and leadership have provided for them, like an MLS Cup championship and a brand-new stadium, has found itself gearing up for yet another fight for the soul of their club. This time, instead of going to war with a duplicitous dope like Anthony Precourt and his heartless hatchet man Dave Greeley, they are now at odds with people they affectionately refer to as “Sweet Dee” and “Dr. Pete” and “Bez”, among others. Columbus Crew fans are rallying in common cause against Columbus Crew legends to retain the identity, history, and soul of the Columbus Crew.   

It’s so messed up. Nobody wants it to be this way.

But after #SaveTheCrew, there is no question that Columbus Crew fans know who they are, what they support, and what they believe in. Any unilateral actions that are incongruent with that identity and belief will be fiercely resisted.

So here we are. And it sucks.

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Saturday morning, the Nordecke released the following statement:

“Ownership has reached out to the Nordecke Board. A diverse group of the Crew community will meet with them early next week to discuss meaningful solutions to the Club’s brand and improving on its continued commitment to community engagement.”

This has lightened my heart considerably. Of course, action is what will matter in the end. I know a rebrand is an expensive and extensive undertaking. I know unwinding a rebrand and/or starting a new one would only add to that expense. But that’s also the cost of doing business. Some business decisions are financially costly mistakes, but pushing forward with something that unnecessarily alienates and disaffects the fanbase and drives persistent negative publicity could be more far more costly, especially when this should be a time of good feelings and celebration as the new stadium opens. As they say, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

In addition to the cost, I’m sure immediately walking back a rebrand is also embarrassing. I get it. It’s an admission that they got things terribly, terribly wrong. And there are plenty of things that can be examined internally as to how it all went so wrong. Was dissent discouraged, silenced, or ignored? Was there a flaw in the focus group process, either in composition or questioning, that led to unrepresentative findings? Was this a case of making up their mind at the beginning of the process and then contouring everything to match the desired outcome, reality be damned? Those are just a few of the questions they need to ask themselves during the postmortem. I don’t think the public wants heads on a pike over this. I think fans were ecstatic over the current organization until this mishap. There is no need to scapegoat someone as a sacrificial offering. There is only the need to stand up and do the right thing for the Columbus Crew as a whole—club and community.

If ownership and management were to come out and say they never underestimated passion of Columbus Crew fans, but misunderstood what they would want out of a rebrand and they will now begin to make things right by immediately restoring the club’s official name to Columbus Crew (with or without the SC), that would be a great first step.

If they want to truly go to the next level, they’d jettison the new logo change in its entirety, and then either retain / slightly modify the existing logo for permanent usage going forward, or at least use it as the placeholder while committing to a collaborative new logo in two years’ time.

But if they wish to cling to the sunk cost fallacy and proceed with the new logo until a better one can be designed to replace it in two years, they must reassure fans they will get it right going forward and will endeavor to correct the internal processes that led to this unfortunate disconnect from the community at large. Restoring the name Columbus Crew and either erasing the new logo entirely, or as a fallback, committing to be rid of it in two years (although I don’t think anybody truly wants to look at that new thing for two years) would make this whole fiasco a hiccup that was swiftly resolved and demonstrated ownership’s commitment to the fans by hearing and reacting to their very real concerns about matters of great importance, such as the club’s very identity. Ownership and management can then rightfully point to all they’ve accomplished since saving the team and express their (well-deserved) desire that this one since-corrected misstep will not detract from the mountains of good they’ve done.

And the good news is that while two months before the new stadium opens was poor timing for a catastrophically received rebrand, it’s also the perfect opportunity to unwind it. If Columbus Crew ownership and leadership fully stop the bleeding now by restoring the name Columbus Crew and ditching the new logo, the whole incident will be washed away by waves of positive publicity created by the stadium’s opening. The rebrand fiasco will be a mere blip on the Columbus Crew’s historical timeline. It will be a temporary mishap to joke about, like the scoreboard fire.

This piece is just one person’s opinion shaped by 25 years of Columbus Crew history and community. I won’t pretend to speak for every individual, so people can add or subtract from what I’ve written as they see fit. And it’s not like I’ve crammed every thought rattling around my brain into this piece, which is already long enough.

But as Columbus Crew ownership and leadership head into their meetings with the Nordecke and other Columbus Crew fans next week, I hope this piece provides useful context for the situation they presently find themselves in. What happens next will be pivotal.

Looking at the situation in front of us, I am with the fans on this one. Our club’s identity and history is essential to not only the story of soccer in Columbus, but to Major League Soccer as well. That history was pioneered and written by the Columbus Crew. Not “Columbus SC” with a merchandise store named “Crew Shop.” The Columbus Crew club name needs to be formally retained in its entirety. I honestly don’t see any wiggle room on that one. Our identity and our history were forged before the present MLS era of homogeneous conformity, where every team is (City) FC/SC and it seems like nearly every MLS game is a team wearing black vs. a team wearing white. We are the yellow soccer team named the Columbus Crew. It’s our identity. It’s our heritage. And we are damn proud of it. Failure to undo these damaging branding changes, and to insist that the rebrand will proceed as announced, will prolong the catastrophe and continue to poison the well.

Ditching the new logo, whether immediately rolling it back like it never existed and restoring the roundel, or at least using the roundel as a placeholder until another new logo can be developed, also seems essential.

My hope is that Columbus Crew ownership and management will listen to the outpouring of anguish and criticism of the club’s name change and logo change and understand why it is so upsetting and then apply the lessons learned and endeavor to make it right as soon as possible. And if so, my hope is also that Columbus Crew fans graciously accept any such responsive actions and feel a restored sense of faith and pride in Columbus Crew ownership and management going forward, secure in the knowledge that our roots ultimately received the respect they deserve.

The future success of the Columbus Crew depends on all of it. I am happy all parties are getting together next week to start this process. Based on the reality of the situation, I think it’s the club that is going to need to make the concessions in this specific instance, and that’s going to take guts, humility, and leadership. Nonetheless, I hope all parties act in the best interests of the Columbus Crew as a historically significant MLS brand and as a passionate civic-minded fan community. As the #SaveTheCrew mantra goes, “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”

Unwinding an unpopular rebrand is expensive, but the history and community embodied by the Columbus Crew is priceless. As a tight-knit group of people, let’s all put on our hardhats and get to work on building a better future by doing the right thing for each other, for our city, and for our club—the Columbus Crew.

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POSTSCRIPT

I have no idea of the cross-organizational legal entanglements this would involve, and I’m sure MLS would absolutely hate it and veto it for obvious reasons, but in the summer of 2018, I asked Morgan Hughes to make a theoretical Columbus Crew logo that removed the SC and replaced the existing “96” badge with the #SaveTheCrew badge, which also contains a 96. That would take a logo that already tells so much of a story about our club and add yet another meaningful story—the most meaningful story—to the logo. And it’s a story about the fans and about current ownership. It would put them both on the logo in a way honors their legendarily mutual triumph.

I would personally make this the new logo in a heartbeat, content to know that the only alteration ever required in the future would be to add more stars above it.

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2 thoughts on “The De-Brand Debacle: It’s Time to Re-Respect Our Roots

  1. Couldn’t agree more with everything you said. I made a small change to the new logo that at LEAST preserves the “Crew” name by adding “REW” inside the “C”, but I LOVE the Hughes version of the Crew roundel shape.

  2. If they really want a Euro sounding name, replace SC with 96 and the previous logo. Columbus Crew 96.

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