Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Washington Nationals: Marketing Entropy
Meets Roller Derby Culture  

So in my last entry I suggested, "One of the reasons I don't write a lot about marketing, one of my own areas of strength, is that lessons from baseball would almost all be counter-examples, a gloomy Trail of Tears." I posted there a very positive example, one to follow.

Big mistake. It took the League office a mere 24 hours to come up with the most brain-dead counter-example I can remember: The new marketing for the Washington Nationals. I'm not going to make a habit of pointing out examples of weak marketing in baseball, even though they have value as counter-examples (what not to do), but this one is so over the flop, I just have to lay out some of it.


You probably know the National League Montréal Expos, owned by the other 29 major league teams, will play the 2005 season in Washington, D.C. as the Washington Nationals. The team announced its new name and logo this week.

As far as the team's move, I'm sad for Montréal, thrilled for D.C., and totally speechless at the exxxtreme suicidal marketing approach the league has taken. The approach spits in the eye of almost every tenet of what American marketing professionals know.

Let's cover the logo first, and then go on to two elements the organization cadged (foolishly).


The key thing you want to do with your image in a competitive market is to differentiate yourself from everyone else. Whatever your unique proposition is, you want your graphics/logo/symbols/look to reinforce that proposition, what you do, and its uniqueness. As a new organization, your logo should attract the eye and it should say something about what your organization does. Here's a great example. Here's one you know; it doesn't tell you what they do, but it comunicates how you'll feel, and in a different, textual way, the one at the top of this page tells you something about what makes the underlying commodity different or original.

Not so the team's new logo. It's militantly bland, using the generic colors of those afraid to stand out, pseudo-retro lettering redolent of a B-movie with a baseball backdrop (think The Kid From Left Field). It's purposefully symmetrical to nail the ethos of insipid.

It's reminiscent of the big temporary images teams put on batter's box circles or the giant ones they sculpt on the outfield to commemorate team centennials or All-Star Games or Playoff Series. For those temporary purposes, those images are just fine -- they are not meant to sell, but simply remind the viewer of a specific, transitory event. I call that "phoning it in" imagery: it's easy on the eyes, isn't meant to stimulate, and textually informative about something that needs no burnishing.

A product logo though, needs imagery that screams out an image that stimulates prospective customers & makes them feel special. If the Nationals' logo could scream, it would scream "We're boring".

But they didn't stop there. They didn't just crater, they compounded it by weaving in cachet de failure.

Here's their cap. It neither draws from the graphics in the logo, nor looks good next to it. Okay, lots of people have a "tin ear" for type (a tin cornea?). But here's the coup de pruneau...

It's a close replica of the cap graphic for the last major league baseball team that played in Washington, a team that failed so miserably no one even wanted to write a funny Broadway musical about them, a team that stiffed the District on the field, a team that left in the middle of the night and stiffed the District again by walking away from long-term financial deals. They broke D.C.'s heart and pocketbook both.

Yet the league's spinmeisters resurrected the 1963-1971 Washington Senators uniform graphics (look at those caps...the similarity is chilling). It's not quite like hawking Marechal Petain memorabilia to French resistance fighters, but it's close.

Do they think there's nostaligia for that failed franchise that jilted the city? Not much. Here was their record from the expansion franchise's genesis to their beam-out to The Big D:

Year League Record Finish Manager
1971 AL East 63-96 5 Ted Williams
1970 AL East 70-92 6 Ted Williams
1969 AL East 86-76 4 Ted Williams
1968 AL 65-96 10 Jim Lemon
1967 AL 76-85 6 Gil Hodges
1966 AL 71-88 8 Gil Hodges
1965 AL 70-92 8 Gil Hodges
1964 AL 62-100 9 Gil Hodges
1963 AL 56-106 10 Mickey Vernon, Eddie Yost, and Gil Hodges
1962 AL 60-101 10 Mickey Vernon
1961 AL 61-100 9 Mickey Vernon

One solid finish above .500 (1969). Okay, so how about attendance...many lovable losers draw big crowds who don't care how well the team is doing (think Cubs when they weren't making the playoffs). Here are the Senators' attendance records during that same period.

Year League Record Finish Stadium Attend/G Attend Rank
1971 AL East 63-96 5 R.F.K. Stadium 8,088 11th out of 12
1970 AL East 70-92 6 R.F.K. Stadium 10,183 8th out of 12
1969 AL East 86-76 4 R.F.K. Stadium 11,335 6th out of 12
1968 AL 65-96 10 R.F.K. Stadium 6,749 10th out of 10
1967 AL 76-85 6 R.F.K. Stadium 9,636 8th out of 10
1966 AL 71-88 8 R.F.K. Stadium 7,388 10th out of 10
1965 AL 70-92 8 R.F.K. Stadium 6,915 9th out of 10
1964 AL 62-100 9 R.F.K. Stadium 7,409 10th out of 10
1963 AL 56-106 10 R.F.K. Stadium 6,695 10th out of 10
1962 AL 60-101 10 R.F.K. Stadium 9,122 8th out of 10
1961 AL 61-100 9 Griffith Stadium II 7,561 9th out of 10

When I worked in D.C., the anthropologist in me could never stop calling it "The Roller Derby Culture". This is a hypercompetitives' ghetto, a place where people who are in the dominant culture would rather fail but have people think they succeeded than succeed and be overlooked. The dominant culture eats their young and dumps anything that smells like it might be a loser. I've seen it from all angles-- I worked as an aide at the U.S. Senate by day and drove a cab at night -- trust me when I tell you I'm not overstating the ethnographic twist.

Nostalgia isn't automatically a good thing. That feeling or thing you're trying to tap into by evoking has to be something that doesn't freak out the target customer (it can, and probably should, freak out non-targeted individuals).

Moreover, nostalgia is hard to come by in a metropolitan area where a disproportionate number of people with money are from someplace else and plan to move someplace else in a few years. ¿How many people living in D.C were conscious and lived there in 1969 when the team was good? Yep, it's a lower number than bought the Pat Boone heavy-metal covers album (although anything with Ritchie Blackmore and Merry Clayton on it is worth playing).

The combination of the logo (that says "we're boring") and the cap (that says "we suck as much as that terrible team we're going to imitate) is an unfortunate one. D.C. deserved better -- the ballplayers on that interesting team deserved better.


The cap graphic cannot sell nostalgia for failure. The team needs to differentiate itself from the past and face the future. They do have a little cushion for minimizing the effects of exxxtreme suicidal marketing -- National League baseball is, after all, a monopoly in the Capital, with the nearest rival being Philadelphia's Phillies at 138.4 miles away. There's novelty (though notice in the table above how little that novelty did for the inaugural 1961 Senators team). and that should sell some tickets for a season or two. And there will be a cluster of middle-aged fans who remember the old team, and, given they're playing in the same ballpark, the nostalgia factor might draw some persistent near-retirees.

They need a real logo that embodies the spirit of the team or the city or both (that'd be hard because culturally, the team really reflects where it came from more than where it's about to start playing).

A bold redesign, either acknowledging the Expos' past (using their colors and typefaces, but stretching the model to the limit...like Pat Boone singing It's a Long Way to the Top If You Wanna Rock 'N Roll) or a makeover with unique colors and/or typefaces that instills a sense of "change" in the consumer, of freshness, of differentiation. That would make it not just "a" team, but "the" team. And dump all the symbology of the failed expansion franchise, don't have a Jim Duckworth Day or pretend there were some "good old days" watching those old Senators teams for anyone who was over the age of about 14.

Neither militant blandness nor nostalgia for a combined playing- and business failure works well, especially in that Roller Derby Culture.

Blaze new trails and let the marketing imagery support that message. And let Pat Boone sing the National Anthem once in a while, just to make the Taliban & James Dobson squirm.

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