How Mother helped the 76ers revolutionize their brand

Sports teams are finally getting serious about design and branding. This season, Philly's patriotic upstarts are leading the march

Sports teams are forever rebranding. Every year there are new players, new narratives and — for better or worse — new outcomes.

"We have a variable product," says Tim McDermott, chief marketing officer of the Philadelphia 76ers. "We cannot control the wins and losses; we cannot control who is on the team. If you have a star player, that player could get injured. We can’t control that the way Starbucks can control the taste of the coffee."

No team better represents this uncertainty these days than the 76ers. Since billionaire Joshua Harris, co-founder of Apollo Global Management, and a group of eight investors (including Will and Jada Pinkett Smith) bought the team in 2011 for the bargain price of about $300 million, they have instituted a turnaround strategy alternately called brilliant and idiotic. As the 2015/16 season begins, fans are still unsure when, or if, the unconventional approach will pay off.

But in early 2014, McDermott was ready to think about updating the team’s appearance. The 76ers were starting to look different on the court, and he wanted those changes reflected in the logo; the uniforms; even the tickets; and, of course, the advertising. "Who do we want to be? " he asked himself. "How do we want to stand out?"

Philadelphia 76ers' former logo.

Initially, the idea was to do the branding work in house, as NBA teams historically have. But a member of the ownership team had a relationship with the New York office of Mother, the independent London-based creative and design agency. So in July, Mother’s strategy director Bruno Frankel, design director Mark Aver and then-chief executive Andrew Deitchman traveled to Philadelphia for what was supposed to be a one-day meeting with 76ers chief executive Scott O’Neil, chief revenue officer Chris Heck and McDermott.

"Originally it was about Mother being a helpful friend because of some shared connections," Frankel says, "just talking to them about our experiences working with more traditional brands and see if we can’t lend them some wisdom over a day or so."

But the discussions quickly escalated. "What became clear was that there would be a real value if they had the opportunity and time to do a proper branding project," Frankel says. Not surprisingly, Mother got the gig.

The Wave
Maybe Deitchman is just good at upselling. But these days, it’s easier than ever to convince a professional sports franchise to invest in its brand. This year alone, of the three NBA teams that unveiled new looks, two did so in collaboration with hip, independent New York agencies known for their design chops.

The Milwaukee Bucks went all the way to Brooklyn to enlist the help of Doubleday & Cartwright, a design firm that’s also worked for ESPN, Nike and Red Bull. One unorthodox result of that collaboration: the Bucks’ new secondary team color, to complement its signature green, is cream — not a shade that exactly screams "basketball."

Bucks' new logo.

"If you know color theory, cream complements green really well," Justin Kay, the agency’s creative director, told ESPN. "It's a natural pairing." Such considerations might feel a bit precious for an NBA team. But the days of garishly colored jerseys and esthetically bankrupt logos are slowly disappearing as teams start to grasp the power of a fully realized brand, says McDermott.

(The third team to rebrand this year, the Los Angeles Clippers, hired RPA, the Santa Monica agency known for its artsy Honda work, to create an ad campaign promoting the new look, but didn't collaborate with the agency on the look itself.)

"I think there’s a wave, a momentum in the sports field to really start to understand and articulate your brand in a really top-notch way," McDermott says. "What you’re seeing is sports teams are starting to say, ‘We are an incredible passion brand, so let’s be sure we are putting a lot of time and energy into the science of understanding our brand.’"

A Philadelphia story
After that July meeting, the 76ers decided to retain Mother for a year-long project to help them better understand and express their brand. Over the following months, Frankel and his team would make repeated trips to Philadelphia, talking to anyone and everyone with a perspective on the team and the city.

"We talked to historians and local officials to understand the Philadelphia story, the way people see themselves today and historically," Frankel says. "We spoke to everyone within the organization, from the sales teams to the people who work in and around the stadium to Coach Brown and Sam Hinkie," the team’s general manager since 2013. "We spoke to ex-players, trainers and the coaching staff, and we spoke to a few players, though they were hard to get cause it was the off-season."  And of course, they spoke to the fans, "from the legacy people who have been going since their grandfather took them to newer fans and to people who feel they’ve lost a connection to the team," Frankel says.

It doesn’t take a professional strategist to understand that fans feel more connected to their team when it wins. What Frankel sought to understand was the specific connection the fans felt to each of the team’s three championship teams. "The era of Dr. J. was particularly interesting," says Frankel, referring to Julius Irving, who played with the 76ers for 11 seasons starting in 1976. "That was when Philly fans had a sense that their city was associated with innovation, that they had brought along a player who brought artistry and magic to the game." Fans adored Allen Iverson, who played with the 76ers from 1996 to 2006 (and then again in 2009), because they felt his playing style of "hustle and grit" reflected the city’s character.

The team’s name, they soon realized, was both a blessing and a curse.

Unlike a lot of NBA teams, the 76ers "are not named after an animal or weather pattern," says Frankel. Instead, they "have this incredibly deep story that’s sometimes hard to know how to use, because it’s so big and so heavy in the world of America. But that’s a really powerful thing. So how can we bring it to life and leverage it in way that feels right and suitable for a sports team?"

Rocky and Ben
The picture that came into focus looked a lot like Philly itself. "We are the one team built on the fact that this is the birthplace of our nation, " says McDermott. "If you think about the characteristics of this city, you think about Ben Franklin and his inventive spirit, you think about Rocky Balboa — that’s where we have an opportunity to market ourselves."

Eventually, a narrative emerged. The new 76ers, like the city the team represented, were all about revolution. Their rebuilding plan was risky and, according to some, a suicide mission. But it held the promise of a huge payoff. Like Rocky and Ben Franklin before them, the 76ers were unlikely heroes who relied on ingenuity to beat the odds. Philly may not be a big coastal town like New York or Washington, D.C., Frankel points out, but it has always loomed large on the national stage, especially in sports.

"’Revolutionary’ felt like a really honest and true word," Frankel says. "And this idea of ‘heart’ was supposed to talk about the spirit of the city and the spirit of the fans."

After trying and rejecting a few different positioning lines, the team settled on a simple one: Revolutionary at Heart.

At the owners’ annual meeting in Miami on Feb 24, 2015, Mother and McDermott delivered a brand book containing the team’s seven core attributes.

These characteristics would inform every step of the redesign. Though most of the uniform, court and logo design were done in-house by the team (the NBA must approve all changes to such assets), Mother provided sketches and mock-ups to guide the process. The new tickets, for example, were based on sketches done by Mother.

Ticket mockup by Mother.

The logos were given a new dose of patriotism. The primary logo maintained the classic insignia, but exchanged the rectangular red background for a blue circular border containing six white stars and the word "Philadelphia." Other logos include images of Ben Franklin and 13 stars for the original 13 colonies. Though red, white and blue remained the team’s main colors, the new logos were rendered mostly blue in an attempt to simplify the palette.

McDermott went through "six to 12 different concepts" for the new uniforms. "We were looking to incorporate a lot of our history into our uniform in a modern way," he says. Although the three resulting outfits were not a huge departure from the previous ones, they do contain subtle homages to the team’s three championship seasons (1966-67, 1976-77, 1982-83). Stars along the sides reference the Dr. J. era, and the abbreviation "Phila" on the home jerseys comes from the Wilt Chamberlin seasons.

Fans who look closely will notice that there are seven stars on one side of the uniforms and six on the other, a sly nod to the team’s name.

But the branding goes beyond uniforms and logos. Mother designed banners for use in the stadium that resemble patchwork quilts from the American Revolution, inscribed with "Phila," "since 1776" and "loud." And fans can expect to see a lot of drums around the stadium and in the team’s advertising, a reference to the iconic fife and drums from Archibald Willard’s painting Spirit of ’76.

The ad campaign, titled "Since 1776," launched in September. It includes wild posting and display ads that, like the in-stadium banners, resemble revolutionary quilts. There is a Web site where fans can make a custom "Revolutionary Since ___" avatar. And there are two TV spots, a :30 and a :90, that alternate between inspiring images of the team and everyday Philadelphians (including a lone drummer, who can be heard throughout), as a narrator speaks.

"We find our own way to win. We lift the game higher," says the voiceover. Our history is making history, and just as we did then, we want it more."

The final shot of the commercial is an overhead view of the drum, on which the words "Since 1776" have been written. "In this city, revolution is our name," the narrator concludes.

The intangibles
In June 2015, the 76ers began unveiling elements of the new look. And while the team has gone 0-2 to start the season, the look has been well-received. UniWatch, a blog about sports uniforms, gave the new uniforms an admiring A-. "This is a team that’s going to look good while it’s being embarrassingly bad," wrote Deadspin.

"So far, the feedback through social listening as well as direct communication from fans has been very positive," McDermott says. But he is careful to add that "a rebrand is a longer-term journey, an investment. It’s not just about a campaign, but about our DNA, our soul, a way of being where all pieces of the company are part of the same brand ecosystem and every single touch point reflects the brand strategy." In other words, these things take time.

The 76ers weren’t the only ones receiving good press for their new look. The Milwaukee Bucks were praised in the media for their design-savvy rebrand. (The Clippers, on the other hand, didn’t fare too well. In one of the tamer reactions, UniWatch called the new uniforms and logos "pretty awful and invited readers to do better. SBNation called them "straight garbage.")

Of course, there’s little to no evidence that new logos and uniforms sell more tickets. And while successful rebrands probably do sell more merchandise, the economics of licensing make it hard to justify a total overhaul just to sell a few jerseys. "Nobody would do a rebranding just to sell merchandise," McDermott insists.

Still, says McDermott, "having a core, sound brand is what ultimately people believe in and buy, and that’s as true for sports as it is for a CPG company." It’s a pretty radical statement when you consider that sports teams — unlike, say, Unilever — have an actual win-loss record meant to inspire loyalty.

Which is precisely the point, McDermott says. "People ask me what is the difference between marketing a sports team and another B-to-C brand. I say, ‘Nothing.’ "

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