Two ways the XFL can improve upon the AAF’s branding process

Splitting the work among local designers and executing an open branding process can both yield significant benefits.

The Alliance of American Football released the logos and color schemes for its first eight teams in a pair of unveilings on September 20 and September 25. Some turned out better than others, but rather than getting too deep into the weeds critiquing the individual logos, I would like to take a step back and examine the overall process the league used:

  1. Hire a designer
  2. Work privately with that designer to design all eight brands
  3. Release the final product to the public

This is the standard in the industry, so I hope nothing I write comes across as accusing the AAF of cutting corners. This was a professional, serious branding process, and after the UFL’s “effort” in 2009, that shouldn’t be taken for granted.

But as the XFL looks for ways to improve upon the AAF’s performance ahead of their own 2020 launch, I see two big opportunities for improvement:

Split the work among local designers

The biggest issue with the AAF’s work is that all eight logos are pretty clearly done by the same hand. The designer, Joe Bosack & Co., was eminently qualified and produced some strong work, but there’s a cost associated with the sameness. I talked a lot about this theme here, but to summarize: the fan-team connection is the foundation on which sports are built, and anything that makes the teams feel like units of the whole rather than independent clubs compromises that relationship.

The BIG3 made diversity a priority.

A better effort was executed by the BIG3. Creating unique identities was especially important for the 3-on-3 basketball venture, as the eight teams aren’t based in a single city but rather travel the country together. Both the designer, Todd Radom, and the founder, Ice Cube, spoke specifically to the importance of creating diversity in this June 2017 ESPN piece:

Another priority was avoiding the cookie-cutter look that often results when designing uniforms for an entire league at once. “The teams had to look separate,” said Radom. “They should look like each one came from a different designer, if possible, because each team deserved its own look, its own feel.”

“I wanted a mix of styles,” said Cube. “I wanted to start from old-time basketball, back when the game first started, all the way up to a modern look. What was cool about working with Todd is that he’s able to give you all those different styles, all those different eras of basketball.”

Taking this a step further would be actually contracting eight different designers to design the eight different logos, which guarantees authentic diversity in the look and feel of each team. And splitting the work allows for a final optimization: contracting local designers for each market. As critical decision on imagery and colors are made, working with firms based in the host cities gives a league the best chance of coming up with a brand that resonates with local fans and steers clear of stereotypes or misconceptions.

Precourt Sports Ventures turned to the Austin-based Butler Bros to design Austin FC

An example of this recently played out in Austin. Precourt Sports Ventures (PSV), the ownership group of the Columbus Crew, recently unveiled the name and badge for Austin FC ahead of its planned move to the Texas state capital. PSV eschewed national designers in favor of the Austin-based Butler Bros, whose portfolio includes local favorites like Tacodeli. The result has been an instant hit locally and helped bolster support ahead of a crucial Austin City Council vote that secured PSV’s right to build a new downtown stadium in the city. The local bona fides of the designer played a critical role in that reception.

Would the XFL consider it?

Branding is a hard process, and working with eight designers is much more complicated than working with just one. The temptation to keep all the art under one roof will be especially strong for the XFL, as they already have easy access to WWE’s fantastic arts department. The league would be wise to resist.

Execute an open branding process

Screen Shot 2018-09-29 at 10.57.41 AM
The Open Branding Project provided updates on the progress of Baseball New Zealand’s rebrand.

Providing public updates on the status of the branding process contravenes the standard practice of only releasing the final product, but this very concept was recently executed by designers Brian Gundell and Brandon Moore for their redesign of Baseball New Zealand. The duo provided frequent insights into the status of the project before eventually delivering the final product. From their initial post explaining the project:

We believe there are 3 factors that attribute to a poor launch of a brand identity … 1.) It comes as a surprise. 2.) There is poor communication about what honestly went into the work. 3.) The public only sees the final piece and never the process or thought that created it.That’s why [we] want to do what we do best all in the open. We’d like to go through an entire design project and put all that we do on a virtual wall for all to see, in hope of solving the mentioned issues.

I loved reading the Baseball New Zealand updates, but it was watching the AAF’s process play out that convinced me an open process is worth trying with a wider audience.

I receive email alerts from the AAF San Antonio Facebook page, and from the moment the city was announced as the league’s eighth city in June until the league unveiled the San Antonio Commanders name, logo, and colors in September, the chatter had been almost exclusively been of two types: potential players desperately trying to get a roster invite, and fans suggesting names, colors, and uniforms.

For over three months, the AAF didn’t engage with their fans in any way on the topic that was most meaningful to them. Now that it’s time to start moving ticket packages, the San Antonio Commanders need to recreate momentum that has been lost. Moreover, for fans who had their hearts set on a different name, colors, or imagery, the Commanders now need to overcome a sense of disappointment.

An open process addresses both of these points, making it a marketing and engagement strategy in and of itself. Fans are engaged on the exact topic that they are most invested in, and as critical early choices in the branding process are made, fans get insight into why a decision may have been made and a chance to make peace with it early.

Would the XFL consider it?

One of the biggest differences we’ve been able to observe thus far between the XFL and the AAF has been the former’s openness. While the AAF made its public debut as a mostly fully-formed idea in March, the XFL announced its intention to return over two years ahead of time with little more than the league name settled. The AAF did their brainstorming in private ahead of their big initial announcement, while the XFL has been giving the public small glimpses into the work of their Football Reimagined Committee.

As anyone who’s ever had to deliver an update on a big project can tell you, the updates themselves can be a fair amount of work. Exposing yourself to criticism at every step of the process can be draining, especially for a league like the XFL that will have so many critics salivating at the prospect of its failure. But the XFL has already demonstrated an inclination toward showing their work, so an open branding process could be a natural fit.

Pulling it all together

If the XFL acted on both suggestions, this would be the resulting process:

  1. Hire eight designers in each of the eight XFL cities
  2. Communicate frequently about the status of each branding process
  3. Finalize the design

There’s a cost associated with both concepts, but the XFL would be wise to balance that against the significant benefits of a branding process designed to cultivate the engagement between the fans and the teams. In the end, that relationship is what will determine the success of each individual team and, in turn, of the league as a whole.

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