Sports Branding: Time to Say Goodbye to the NFL Redskins.

Is it time for the NFL’s Washington Redskins to change their name?

A Native American organization says yes, and has mounted an aggressive marketing campaign to see it happen.

Let’s look at five key aspects to this story:

  1. Derogatory Term.  It’s not hard to understand that a National Football League team called the “Redskins” is offensive to Native Americans.
  2. Incredible Commissioner.  The NFL commissioner’s letter to Congress suspends reality.
  3. Strong Marketing.  The advertising campaign is clever.
  4. Insensitive Owner.  The team’s owner ought to be more diplomatic in his public comments.
  5. Brand Management Implications.  The name has been used for 80 years, but is it a good brand management decision going forward?

First, some background about the Oneida Indian Nation, located in Central New York.  According to their website, the Nation is “known as the United States’ first ally, having fought with the colonists during the American Revolution.  The Oneidas participated in key battles such as Oriskany and Saratoga, and traveled hundreds of miles to deliver corn to Washington’s starving troops at Valley Forge.”

Derogatory Term

Controversy about the Washington Redskins name isn’t new, but it’s top-of-mind again this football season.  The Oneida Indian Nation created the “Change the Mascot” marketing campaign “to end the use of the racial slur “redskins” as the mascot and name of the NFL team in Washington, D.C.”

Even in these too politically correct times, it’s not hard to acknowledge that a professional football team in our nation’s capital with the nickname “Redskins” is offensive.

Incredible Commissioner

Yet, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took heat for including this sentence in his letter to Congress dated June 5, 2013:

“The Washington Redskins name has thus from its origin represented a positive meaning distinct from any disparagement that could be viewed in some other context.  For the team’s millions of fans and customers, who represent one of America’s most ethnically and geographically diverse fan bases, the name is a unifying force that stands for strength, courage, pride and respect.”

Strong Marketing

Really Mr. Commissioner?  Check out the first radio ad, in which the Oneida Indian Nation takes him to task:

The marketing initiative features clever radio advertising and geographically dispersed media planning to gain wider awareness:

“The ad campaign will run for the entire NFL season, airing in the Washington, D.C. market for the season opener, and then in the cities where the Washington team will play road games during those game weeks. The ads will tell NFL fans why the league must stop using an epithet for any team, much less the one that represents the nation’s capital.”

Insensitive Owner

Poster. Washington Redskins Facebook.

Poster. Washington Redskins Facebook.

Although the team name is not a new issue, owner Dan Snyder managed to inflame the controversy prior to the start of the new season.  Here’s what he told USA Today in early May:

“We will never change the name of the team.  As a lifelong Redskins fan, and I think that the Redskins fans understand the great tradition and what it’s all about and what it means, so we feel pretty fortunate to be just working on next season.” He added:  “We’ll never change the name.  It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

Where’s the customer sensitivity, Mr. Snyder?  Even if you truly and deeply feel that way, CEOs and organization leaders should moderate and be much more careful with their public statements.

Especially because there is precedent for changing the name of a sports team.  For example, in 1994, St. John’s University (New York City) changed the school’s nickname from Redmen to Red Storm.

Brand Management Implications

There are marketing considerations and implications about continuing with a polarizing brand name.  Marketers strive mightily to carve out a distinctive brand positioning and meaning with customers that creates positive engagement and sustainable financial performance.  There’s no doubt the Washington Redskins are a great sports brand.

But when does the name move from polarizing to offensive to shouldn’t be used?  The Oneida Indian Nation would say a long time ago.

In recent days, Commissioner Goodell has softened his tone and punted the issue back to team management.

The question for Mr. Snyder is does he really want to fight this public relations battle year after year?  Is maintaining a “Redskins” brand name essential and healthy for the team’s long-term success and connection with fans?

My view is that there’s little cause for concern about a Redskins name change from a fan relations standpoint.  Washington has super dedicated fans, who will continue their strong, emotional connection with the team under a new name.  They’re not going to cancel season tickets or stop watching games.  No way.

Washington ownership and management being stubborn seems like a losing proposition on every level.  Change the name and move forward.


Native Americans, and many other Americans, consider the NFL’s Washington Redskins team name offensive.  A clever, new marketing campaign once again puts the spotlight on this contentious issue.  It’s time for the team to change and move forward.

Harvey Chimoff is a hands-on marketing leader and business-wide collaborator who builds marketing capabilities in B2B/B2C organizations that drive customer success.

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