By Aaron Moore, PhD (with a contribution from Dina Wasmer, President of Incite Creative)
Tradition and community are fundamental marketing tenants for minor league baseball franchises operating in the competitive family entertainment marketplace. For nearly 50 years, few organizations have adhered to these principles as closely as the Reading Phillies have.
The longtime affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies carved out such an impressive niche that its Pennsylvania home became known as “Baseball Town.” Sharing a similar identity and color scheme with its Major League big brother located an hour away enabled the “R-Phillies” to sell plenty of tickets and hotdogs.
After piggybacking on the Phillies brand for so long, there wouldn’t appear to be a reason for Reading to willingly alter its prosperous strategy. But the unexpected happened in November, when the franchise launched a distinctive rebranding campaign.
The Phillies-inspired scripted “R” dating back to 1967 is gone. Say hello to the Reading Fightin Phils and their new logo of a feisty ostrich in a combative stance. The team had younger fans in mind with their decision to rebrand, according to Eric Scarcella, Reading’s director of public relations.
“Most of our fans are families with younger children,” he said. “We felt we needed a new identity kids could connect to. Kids identify with a character more than a word or letter.”
The obscure name and logo (which CBSSports.com called “a bit over the top”) stems from one of the team’s mascots, the Crazy Hotdog Vendor, who roams the stadium in an ostrich outfit.
Demonstrating the difficulties of rebranding, Reading’s public address announcer Dave Bauman quit in protest after 35 years, and fans blasted the image overhaul as a money-grab to sell merchandise at the expense of tradition.
Rebranding morphed into crisis communication.
The Reading Eagle’s poll of nearly 5,500 people found that 87 percent of the respondents opposed the new name. Angry calls poured into Reading’s office, while on Facebook, negative posts besieged the team’s wall, and the “Save the Reading Phillies” group grew to 2,800 members.
Reading’s recent hits and misses offer some insight into the rebranding process.
Sports fans’ passion is what leads to people spending millions of dollars at ballparks. It also fuels vitriol when beloved teams change names or logos. Therefore, the front office of a rebranding team must be prepared to deal with a deluge of angry phone calls and social media messages.
“Execs must train staffers on how to consistently respond to fans and explain the team’s position,” said Dina Wasmer, president of Incite Creative in Cockeysville, Md. “First, thank fans for reaching out; then allow them to vent. People usually feel better after venting.”
Reading took this approach and wisely allowed fans to voice their views on the team’s Facebook wall.
“We saw a lot of negative posts at first,” said Scarcella. “We let them say what they wanted. Now we see less complaints and our social media dialogue is close to normal.”
Wasmer believes that organizations dealing with upset fans must “defuse but don’t be defensive” by responding to them and asking for future support. She also suggests that rebranding teams invest in goodwill by offering free tickets and concession coupons.
During rebranding, organizations must let fans know that their look might be different but that the core product has not changed. Reading communicated this philosophy after some fans started criticizing the ostrich by making a less-than-flattering comparison to New Coke.
“New Coke was an entire change of formula and product,” said Scarcella. “We told fans we weren’t New Coke. We still have the same murals of Phillies players on the concourse, the same employees and the same game day entertainment.”
Reading is currently working on finding the right mix of marketing materials that feature the new look but still capitalize on its most valuable commodity, a close relationship to Philadelphia.
The Fightin Phils received a boost from the media’s agenda-setting function in early January. After a few weeks of stories about upset fans, headlines shifted to positive reports of the team’s merchandise sales. Hatching the ostrich right before Christmas helped move plenty of hats and jerseys during the holidays in Berks County.
By timing the campaign when fans would most likely be in the market for new merchandise, Reading reaped immediate dividends on the business side that then quelled its PR issues.
The franchise experienced its highest ever two-day non-game day merchandise sales soon after the rebranding announcement. Scarcella reports that 85 to 95 percent of current merchandise sales are with the new logo and sales are up 15 times from this point last year.
Reading’s biggest mistake was rebranding when the fans didn’t show a demand for it, then omitting them from the process.
“Sports teams, non-profits [and] corporations alike, before they rebrand, should conduct some research with the target audience — focus groups, interviews, polls,” said Wasmer. “Teams must get a pulse on how people feel about their name and logo.”
Rebranding teams can get fans involved by soliciting them for suggestions on new names/logos or having them vote on a short list of contenders. This involvement can help create a partnership that alleviates fan concerns about rebranding as just a way to sell more merchandise.
The overall effectiveness of Reading’s rebranding campaign will be apparent in early April when the team hosts its home opener. In the stands, there will likely be a large number of fans lamenting the changes, but many will probably be doing so while wearing a new ostrich hat.