NEXT: Predictions on the Columbus Crew “Rebrand”
As readers of this column know, I rarely make predictions. A prediction is a statement of certainty about some future state of affairs, and as I have been at pains to point out, complex systems are inherently unpredictable. Anyone who stands before you and says they can predict the future is lying to you. But this month, I am nevertheless ready to venture a prediction:
The new Columbus Crew “rebrand” will be abandoned in two years’ time, maybe less.
I base this prediction on a historical analogy. In 1995, the New York Islanders conducted a rebrand that was widely, mercilessly and quite correctly mocked by the hockey world. Their classic logo—the logo adorning the Islanders’ sweaters since their inception in 1972, and the logo that won four Stanley Cups in a row in the 1980s—was substituted with an emblem featuring an image of a grizzled, snarling fisherman holding a hockey stick like a harpoon. It’s just that the “Islander” bore a striking resemblance to the “Gorton’s Fisherman”—you know, the makers of the fish sticks?
The Islanders were struggling both on the ice and at the gate. Their merchandise was near the bottom of NHL sales. The rebrand was to help reinvigorate a once proud team. The new logo was inspired, by all things, by the Billy Joel song “The Downeaster ‘Alexa,’” which narrated the life of a Long Island fisherman who was down on his luck. A designer hired by the Islanders thus drew the image of a fisherman in a raincoat not unlike the one that appeared in the video for Joel’s song.
The new logo was launched without any focus-group research, and the results were predictable. The fans’ reaction was immediate and unforgiving. At the same time, the Islanders introduced a fisherman-themed mascot, who was booed without mercy upon his debut at the Nassau County Coliseum. A 10-year-old fan said, “I’d like to assassinate him. I think he’s stupid.”
Everyone in the hockey world laughed at this rebrand such that the Islanders could not back track quickly enough. League rules mandated that they had to wait another year before they could change logos again, otherwise retailers would be stuck with unsellable jerseys and other merchandise. When they were at last permitted, the Islanders could not wait a second before reverting back to their original logo, the one they continue to use to this day. The mocking continued, however. New York Rangers fans taunted the Islanders by chanting “We want fish sticks!” Like the Crew’s ownership, the Islanders wanted to create a memorable brand, and they most certainly did, but not for the reasons they intended.
The backlash has already begun, and not only from Crew fans. Writing in Sports Illustrated, Brian Straus lamented the “dull, minimalist pennant logo that’s a confusing downgrade from the almost-universally liked striped and checkered roundel.” The Sporting News headline read, “’Save the Crew’ takes on new meaning as Columbus club delivers rebrand worthy of an F grade.” Forbes observed that “This new look for Columbus has been almost universally panned by fans and neutral observers, alike. It’s objectively a large downgrade from their current logo, which was one of the best logos in MLS and also one of the better logos that you would see in any sports league in North America.”
Paul Kennedy, writing in Soccer America, editorialized that “The Crew was saved because it was worth saving, and so was its name. Unfortunately, those running the Crew don’t seem to share that same optimism and confidence.” I’m afraid we will soon start to hear some version of “We Want Fish Sticks” hurled at our beloved Crew players as they travel around the league.
The disastrous Islanders rebrand is now the subject of academic research: in 2018, The University of Nebraska Press published We Want Fish Sticks: The Bizarre and Infamous Rebranding of the New York Islanders. I predict that the Crew’s marketing fiasco will also become the stuff of academic case studies, on how and why not to rebrand a successful soccer team that already has a well-recognized and respected brand.
As the anger and taunts and laughter and gibes continue to proliferate, and after a year or two brandishing the ridiculous new logo and team name, I predict the team ownership will very quietly and unceremoniously bring back the Crew “heritage” logo and attempt to forget the whole episode ever happened.
David Staley is an associate professor of history, design, and educational studies at The Ohio State University. He is host of the “Voices of Excellence” podcast, CreativeMornings Columbus and is president of Columbus Futurists.