SBJ/April 3 - 9, 2006/Opinion

What’s in a name? A success story or cautionary tale

Creating a great brand name should be no different for a sports franchise than it is for a product or service. It begins with a communication objective: What the brand — in this case, the team — represents and what story the name should tell.

Oliver Luck and his Houston MLS franchise found trouble
with the 1836 name and quickly switched to Dynamo.
What are the challenges in developing or modifying a name for a sports brand? Does anyone know that Nike is the goddess of victory? Or that NASCAR stands for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing? Every name tells a story.

Powerful brand names can fire imagination, trigger an emotion and be suggestive of an experience or attitude. Though names are only one ingredient, they have significant influence over how a brand is perceived.

Sports franchises often borrow from history. The Philadelphia 76ers are named for the year of American independence. San Francisco’s 49ers capture the pioneering spirit of the California Gold Rush. Both names leverage the historical significance of specific years and the city’s role in those events.

Relying on history to tell a story, however, is sometimes a risky alternative, as historical figures and events can be interpreted differently.

Take 1836. When Major League Soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes relocated to Texas, the organization renamed itself the Houston 1836; soon after, it renamed itself the Dynamo.

Why? The year 1836 is controversial. For some, it is the year Texas bravely won its independence. For others, it was the year the Mexican army lost lives and territory in a bitter war.

The Dynamo is not the first team to experience negative reaction to a name. The New Jersey Devils, the Cleveland Indians and the Washington Redskins have all come under criticism.

A number of colleges have changed their team nicknames to avoid, or in response to, public criticism. St. John’s, formerly the Redmen, is now the Red Storm. Montclair State University’s Red Hawks were once the Indians.

What are the key steps involved in the naming process?

Step 1. Know your game and how to stand out.

• What message are you trying to communicate?
• What are the demographics of the fan base?
• Who are the sponsors?
• What are the greatest moments of excitement?
• How have the team and the sport evolved?
• Where are they headed?

Those in the business will know the answers to such questions, but if you hire a naming specialist, be sure he knows, or that he asks, the right questions. Use the answers to establish creative directions for name development.

Within your sport, several naming conventions are probably already established. Look to create a name that is different from your competitors and will resonate with fans.

Step 2. Select the strongest names for further consideration and then assess which ones tell the most compelling stories. Any names chosen should be easy to say and have no glaring negative associations.

Step 3. Search for legal availability.

Trademark law protects existing brand names so that over time they become a property with value. A Google search to determine whether a name is being used by another organization is not enough.

Leave this up to the experts. It is critical that you and your counsel find a name that is legally available for use and that you properly register an available name prior to launch.

Step 4. Research the name candidates thoroughly.

Fans are your most passionate audience. They will also be your harshest critics if you get the name wrong. Use them as a sounding board.

Popular vote, however, is not the most effective way to test a name. The inherent risk is that often only a portion of those who will be affected vote. In addition, voting assumes participants understand the intended communication objective or story behind each name candidate.

Instead, names should be researched to gauge what they mean and how they may be received. Done properly, research should identify any negative associations with the names being considered.

Step 5. Conduct cultural and linguistic screens.

Brand names (team names included) that will be presented to people of different origins and backgrounds need an additional level of research.

These names need to be linguistically and culturally screened by experts to reveal any unintended meanings. As the 1836 discovered, the impact of a negative association with a name can exceed the proportional size of the group that’s affected.

David Gaglione is associate director of strategic services for Landor Associates.


Guest columns may be sent to Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal, 120 W. Morehead St., Suite 310, Charlotte, NC 28202. By fax: (704) 973-1401. For further information, please contact Betty Gomes at (704) 973-1439.

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