Warriors, Indians, Raiders, Braves, Chiefs ... the chances are strongly in favor of at least one high school, college, or pro team in your hometown carrying one of these monikers. Some teams are alternately named for particular tribes of Native Americans, such as the Choctaw, Cherokee, or Apache.
Until the 1960's, nobody thought much about it. But during the age of Civil Rights, the feelings of minority groups finally began to get the attention it deserves. People became more aware of certain stereotypes that unfairly stigmatize groups of people, whether those individuals are Native American, African, Asian, female, gay, or handicapped. Their feelings matter.
Yet it wasn't until the early 2000's that athletic associations began to address the cultural bias that has been so prominent in sports since organized teams became a thing. At that time, the NCAA cited 19 teams within its bailiwick, banning them from postseason competition unless they changed their team mascot names that were deemed offensive. The NCAA claimed the names were "hostile or abusive" and that those mascots created an atmosphere that was not respectful or sensitive to the dignity of certain people, namely, Native Americans.
Some of the universities changed, others received special permission from local tribes to retain those names, and a few simply opted out of postseason competition. What can marketers take from this lesson in rebranding history?
1. Accept That There Will be Lovers & Haters
Every school that chose to rename their mascots faced haters. When you have to rebrand, you'll face many different opinions -- those who love the old and hate the new, those that hate the old and love the new, those that hate both the old and new ... you get the point. Criticism is fine, because at least they're talking about you. Be as open and transparent as possible when changes like rebranding have to take place, and accept that there will always be a vocal minority of haters. Just be glad that it usually is a minority of the public actually being vocally hateful.
2. Bigotry Isn't Okay With Anybody (Who Matters)
We probably shouldn't skim over the reason why these schools had to rebrand themselves. Chances are, there never was any malice or ill intent behind the mascot names. Many of those school mascots were named in the 1800's and very early 20th century, and quite a few likely did so out of honor and respect for local tribes, not out of hatefulness or bigotry. But the names were deemed offensive nonetheless. It isn't okay to be offensive to any group, even when there isn't ill intent behind it. Much like beauty, offense is in the eye of the beholder.
3. Cultures Change
What was a non-issue for 100 years or more became an issue quickly and decidedly. Cultures shift, and it's the marketer's job to be ahead of the trends, not on time or behind. As a marketer, you need to see the need for rebranding or refocusing your marketing messages before they become problematic. Be the forward-thinking school that changes their name from the Braves to the Hawks before the association comes in and demands it.
4. Find a Better Way to Say It
Marketers should never rest on their laurels. Whatever you said well could be said better. Whatever you express better can be improved on, too. It's imperative that you run tests on various demographic groups before moving ahead with new slogans and campaign messages. It's an excellent practice to have a diverse team in charge of your social media outreach, too. In today's climate, messages that seem totally benign to one group might be highly offensive or inflammatory to another. Get all the perspectives you can to stay out of unintentional hot water.
5. Controversy Sells But Hatred Doesn't
Some brands dive right in the boiling pot of controversy and find the water's just fine for them and their customers. Just be aware, controversy might be a great seller, but hatred isn't. For example, Starbucks sailed through the Red Cup Controversy beautifully, but that's because they maintained the entire time that they weren't going after anyone or anything (in particular, Christmas). Had Starbucks criticized their critics or overtly offended anyone with an anti-Christmas or anti-Christian design, the story would have been quite different. If controversy is one of your selling points, rock it. Just stay carefully on the other side of the line of offending any group of people. It just isn't right, and hatred never sells unless it's David Duke buying.
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