Friday, January 10, 2014

Pirates' Logo Shift a Lesson on Brand Equity

This post is not about baseball.  It’s about branding.  More to the point, it’s about some of the thinking that went into the updating of an iconic brand, and some perspectives on what the latest change says.

So here’s the latest.  The Pittsburgh Pirates announced this week they will use the gold “P” from its cap to serve as the organization’s primary brand design. 

This means that the “P” will serve as the primary logo for the Pirates, replacing a scowling buccaneer with red bandana and eye patch.  This is the first time since the 1930s that the franchise will not use a cartoon variation of a pirate to serve as the team’s primary logo.

At the same time, the team announced it will continue to use the buccaneer cartoon on uniform sleeves for the time being.  The one feature that is gone is a black, gold and red font that accompanied the most recent version of the buccaneer logo.

Instead, the ball club is sticking with basic black and gold.  The “P” and its iconic font will come to stand for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ brand.  The recognizable font from the front of the Pirates’ jerseys will serve as the complement to the “P” in all official marketing, communications and merchandising efforts.

Now here’s where it can get a little confusing.  The media this week has referred to the buccaneer cartoon as the “Jolly Roger” but a true Jolly Roger is a skull and cross bones, not a cartooned pirate.  So, when Pirate announcers say, “Raise the Jolly Roger,” after a Pirates’ win, more often than not, the flag you’d expect to see is the skull and cross bones, not the cartooned buccaneer. 

Not to worry, though, the Pirates’ merchandising department has seen to it that a broad number of flag variations continue to serve the purpose of raising that flag with a win.

My experience with the brand

From 1987 to 1997, I provided PR support to the Pirates on a number of matters.  During that time, we experienced a change in ownership and a push for a new ballpark.  Tied to this was an effort to refocus the brand.

In 1996, the team was planning a change to the logo, the uniforms, everything.  But it didn’t want to get away from its roots.  In fact, it wanted to freshen up the brand while at the same time returning to its brand roots.

On the field, the team was wearing some non-descript uniforms, staying true to the Pirates’ script for home jerseys but using a cursive “Pittsburgh” on away uniforms. The buccaneer at the time was a relatively recent updating of an older design of a pirate with a handle-bar mustache. 

Out with the old, in with the … older

In 1996 and 1997, we conducted a series of focus groups and did some research to finalize a new look.  We corralled a cross-section of people to get their opinions of some of the logo and uniform designs the Pirates were considering.

I remember how we ended up narrowing it to the buccaneer the team still features.  As I recall, it was essentially between him and another design where the buccaneer had a more speckled beard, a sea-faring pirate's hat and a bandana, and rounder chin.  Again, an updated version of an older cartoon logo.  The participants didn’t like the beard. They thought it looked messy. They didn’t like him wearing a pirate hat, and preferred the bandana.  And since goatees were in style, they gravitated to that type of beard.

The team responded with what I think is a pretty sharp design.  I still like seeing that feature on the Pirates’ players’ sleeves.  It’s part of the charm of the game.

On the uniform front, we showed the focus groups all sorts of artists’ renderings of uniforms and even had some front office staffers “model” some prototypes.  The feedback was definitive.

They liked the idea of an alternate jersey in black.  They wanted one.  And at that time, they liked the novelty of returning to the 1960s vest-style Pirate uniforms.  The black Pirate hat with that recognizable “P” was never questioned, though alternate caps were welcomed.   And the Pirate font used on the primary jerseys was a non-negotiable, even for those kids who didn’t yet have a true brand history with the team.

Brands evolve

Change is not a bad thing when it comes to branding.  The key is to find the right balance of preserving whatever that is about the old brand that resonates with targeted audiences – brand equity - while at the same time updating it, keeping it relevant.

I think the Pirates are doing just that.  They’re preserving that iconic “P.”  They’re following a pattern in Major League Baseball where teams build their brands around the letters on the caps the players wear.  The Yankees, the Red Sox, the Braves, the Cardinals.  All storied ball clubs with iconic letters on their ball caps that are the franchise brands.  And the Pirates are seeking to elevate and clarify their own brand in the same way without competition from their own cartooned buccaneer.

So, what is it about brand equity and why should it matter?

Think of it this way. Let’s say you have fond memories of going to the ballpark as a kid with your family.  Let’s say you were a fan.  You followed the team on TV, on the radio.  You had a favorite player.

Then you see that logo later in life and it brings it all back.  The constant of that logo taps emotional feelings of loyalty and affinity.  You want to go back to the summer of your childhood, to the ballpark, and if you can’t, you just want a reminder of that time and all of the good things and good feelings that came with it.

And if you’re just a kid now - or even an adult - experiencing some of these things for the first time, a strong brand will help define that experience for you.  That’s the power of a brand.  That’s brand equity.

My hope is that they preserve the buccaneer or even give him a fresh look again at some point, and not to force him to walk the plank.  He’s been good for the ball club for many, many years.  And if they keep him in some fashion, merchandise sales won’t be any worse for wear.


UPDATE: The Pirates issued a statement clarifying that the buccaneer cartoon will be preserved as a secondary logo.  Here's the story: Pirates Stand by Jolly Roger

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