The Fumble That Wasn’t

[Cache #221]

By Andris Pone – President, Coin Branding

“A colossal mistake, an enormous opportunity squandered.”

That’s what I wrote two-and-a-half years ago in this space in the process of lambasting the ownership of Ottawa’s new CFL football team for naming them the RedBlacks.  Just in case readers weren’t sure how I really felt, I helpfully entitled that blogpost “The Ottawa RedBlacks:  Dead Team Walking.”  The full diatribe is here, and in essence I said that because the RedBlacks – an expansion team whose roster would be comprised of players the other teams didn’t want – would be worse than awful on the field, they needed every marketing advantage they could get.

They needed a name that fulfilled two especially crucial jobs done by all great names:  they are meaningful, and they create a system of language and experiences that can be leveraged to build more and more brand value over time.  Like the way in which the name Winnipeg Jets created the opportunity to hold an After Burner Social, or how fans of the Arizona Coyotes howl during games.  It all builds a network effect in which every component of the brand serves to build value in every other component.

And RedBlacks, I decreed, meant nothing to Ottawans and offered no platform upon which to build such a narrative.  Among other things, I suggested that the team’s new name could have drawn from Ottawa’s colourful origins as a logging town.

This seems like a good time to mention how right I was about Volkswagen’s “noxious admissions” scandal.  Over the past 30 months, I have not endured any worry about my RedBlacks prediction, but I almost immediately doubted the accuracy of my Volkswagen statement to CBC Radio made in September just past.

Essentially I said that the scandal wasn’t that big of a deal – that if VW fired the right people and did the right investigations and were transparent and open and fast, consumer confidence would come back quickly (although the stock price would take some serious time to do so).  But in the days after that statement, it became clear that geez, some customers were really upset about putting themselves out there as environmental champions and then being exposed as the worst polluters of any drivers on the (increasingly decrepit, thanks to them) planet.  So I started to doubt myself.

But then the news three weeks ago:  October sales went up compared to that month in 2014.  As a Verge columnist put it:

“There is a world in which consumers swiftly punish Volkswagen where it counts – the coffers – for its massive, systematic deception of the Environmental Protection Agency, in which it cheated its way around diesel emissions tests for half a decade.”

“This isn’t that world.”

Back to Ottawa, there’s a chance you’ve heard the RedBlacks are playing this Sunday in the CFL championship game, the Grey Cup.  This was not supposed to happen.  Expansion teams stink, and in their first season last year, the RedBlacks won a predictable two games and lost 16.  This year, however, they won 12 and lost six, and then won their conference final with a miraculous 93-yard touchdown with one minute left in the game.

Yet the real miracle is not that Ottawa made it to the end zone with time running out, but that the RedBlacks are in the Grey Cup at all. That’s not what the story is supposed to be for expansion teams with only one full season of existence under their belt.

So the RedBlacks are hardly a dead team walking.  And their name has ended up serving them very well, because ownership has injected it with meaning that was not obvious at first, which in turn created the platform for a system of language and experiences that fans have bought-in to big time.

The RedBlack concept, as it turns out, indeed derives from Ottawa’s lumber town past.  Red and black refer to the plaid colours of the classic lumberjack shirt.  So you have the team mascot, Big Joe, a tribute to Big Joe Montferrand, the French-Canadian lumberjack of 1800s lore and of a song by Stompin’ Tom Connors.  And you have fans dressing up like lumberjacks at the games (and even at their weddings).  And you have a team of forestry students from a nearby college on the sidelines who, when the RedBlacks score a touchdown, fire up their chainsaws and saw a logoed “wood cookie” from a giant log.

All of this is a good reminder that the quality of a brand name can not be judged in isolation.  That it can only be judged by how shrewdly – or as the RedBlacks would have it, how sharply – it is used.

IN THE MEDIA THIS FALL:  In the National Post re Amazon and Etsy; oCBC Radio One re Volkswagen; in the National Post re Mac’s convenience stores.
NEW VIDEO: Check out my presentation in Houston earlier this year (to client USG) on what a brand really is.  (For the abbreviated version, start at 3:45 and stop at about 6:00.  For the longer version, watch the whole thing.)

Coin Branding president Andris Pone is co-author of the Globe and Mail #1-bestselling Brand: It Ain’t the Logo and appears as a branding expert on CBC’s The National, CBC Radio One, the Globe and Mail, National Post and other media outlets.

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