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“Re-Branding Madness in Washington” Overlooks Obvious: The Washington Redskins

Posted in Branding, First Amendment, Law Suits, Marketing, Trademarks

Re-branding occurs all the time.

Re-branding occurs in business. Remember when Bell Atlantic became Verizon? Andersen Consulting became Accenture? How about when Philip Morris became Altria?  

Re-branding occurs in politics too. Just days ago, Judson Berger discussed a kind of "re-branding madness" consuming Washington, D.C. right now: "Terrorist attack is out. — ‘man caused disaster’ is in." Our friends at Catchword Branding had a lot of fun with the political re-branding of Swine Flu.

Re-branding even occurs in the world of professional sports. Remember when the NBA franchise Washington Bullets became the Washington Wizards in 1997 out of concern that the Bullets name of some twenty-three years (1974-1997) had acquired "violent overtones".  How about the recent re-branding from the Seattle Supersonics to the Oklahoma City Thunder? Even the NFL has decided to recognize Cincinnati Bengal Chad Johnson’s re-branding to Ocho Cinco.

Re-branding changes, according to Wikipedia, are "usually in an attempt to distance [the brand] from certain negative connotations of the previous branding." So, given the widespread meaning and understanding of "redskin" as "offensive slang" and that it is "used as a disparaging term for a Native American," given the pain the term has caused, and given that the team’s helmets sport a Native American profile and not a certain variety of spud on them, why won’t the Washington Redskins get on the re-branding bandwagon in our nation’s capital? After all, even one of the attorneys at the same law firm hired by the team apparently has spoken out, read about the details here.

Instead, millions upon millions of dollars continue to be spent defending trademark registrations that never should have been granted in the first place under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, which forbids the federal registration of a trademark that "consists of or comprises matter" that "may disparage" persons or "brings them into contempt or disrepute".

John Welch over at the TTABlog did a thoughtful post earlier this week summarizing the history of the seventeen year old trademark case that I filed on behalf of seven prominent Native American leaders back in September 1992 (Harjo et al v. Pro-Football, Inc.), with the latest unfortunate ruling on appeal, here. Basically, in this latest and final ruling in the Harjo case, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the D.C. District Court’s ruling that even the youngest of the Native American Petitioners, Mateo Romero, had slept on his rights and not pursued the cancellation action soon enough after reaching the age of majority. He was twenty-six when he brought the cancellation action in 1992 and one of the registrations he challenged had only issued two years earlier in 1990.

In 1999, when I left the case, the Harjo Petitioners had prevailed on the merits and successfully argued to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) that cancellation actions based on the "may disparage" language are rooted in "public policy" so a laches defense should not even be available or apply, here. Five years before ordering that the team’s Redskins registrations be cancelled, the TTAB had wisely held in 1994 "there exists a broader interest — an interest beyond the personal interest being asserted by the present petitioners — in preventing a party from receiving the benefits of registration when a trial might show that [the team's] marks hold a substantial segment of the population up to public ridicule."

The good news, however, even in the face of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeal’s disappointing ruling on laches, is that there is a brand new generation of Native American Petitioners, led by Amanda Blackhorse, to make sure that a brand new similar case is actually and finally decided on the merits. In fact, doesn’t this development demonstrate why the 1994 ruling that struck the team’s laches (slept on rights) defense was correct in the first place? The fact that, as long as the offensive team name continues, there always will be new Native American Petitioners reaching the age of majority anxious to object shows that their cause of action is rooted in public policy, not some personal and individual right that might be waived by failing to act quickly enough.

Again, putting the legal issues aside, why doesn’t the team do the right thing, as a responsible business, and hire a branding guru to engage in some serious and successful re-branding?

UPDATE: Supreme Court Requested to Review Washington Redskins Trademark Case.

  • http://catchwordbranding.com/ Burt Alper

    Steve,
    What a great topic! I’d say this name change is long overdue. The fact that this team plays in our nation’s capital using such a disparaging mascot is horrendous. Could anyone imagine a team called the “Blackskins” or the “Yellowskins” existing in today’s world? Maybe we should call them the “Rednecks” instead of the Redskins?
    I’m willing to give teams like the Chiefs and the Warriors some slack because, while those names overtly allude to Native Americans, at least they do so with respect. Redskin is derogatory at best (most would say flat out offensive), and has no right representing any team, let alone a professional football team.
    While your references to the name changes implemented by Accenture and Verizon are interesting, those name changes came about for business strategy reasons. Their previous names weren’t shameful (although in the case of Accenture, the previous namesake *became* shameful amid the Enron scandal). This name change should be mandated purely for political reasons. Shame on Washington and the Redskins organization for continuing to perpetuate this travesty.

  • John Maas

    I think one of the biggest issues here in defense of NOT changing the name is the fans. Consider this; your grew up a Redskins fan, your parents were die-hard fans, you’ve spent hundreds of dollars on Redskins apparel and merchandise, you live, sleep and breathe Redskins football and they change to the name and logo to something. Now not ALL Redskins fans are this extreme but a lot are and most are very sentimental, we’ve all seen fans shed tears at the demolition of an old stadium. Changing the logo is one thing and usually can have some pretty positive results, but changing the NAME of a team is something else entirely and I can assure you that if you ask a Redskins fan if they want their team’s name changed 90% will say NO, regardless if it’s offensive to someone or not.

  • Jeff SanGeorge

    I have to say that I am a fan of the NFL and even the Washington team, but I am offended at the insensitivity of the Redskin’s organization has shown toward the rights and feelings of Native Americans. No doubt this is a difficult issue to resolve. Having followed this discussion so far I agree that a good compromise would be to go with Julian’s suggestion to keep the colors and use a derivative of the name and change the imagery to something neutral. I like the suggestion of using the “Skins” this could provide a wide range of visual solutions including a football itself (made of pigskin). Despite the history an sentimentality of fans the “redskins” name simply has to change. There is no excuse to be to so blatantly racially insensitive in this day and age.

  • Julian DeLuca

    Let me start by expressing my personal opinion that the Redskins should be entitled to call themselves whatever they want. That point aside, should the Redskins ever be forced to make a change, a potential solution to the issue could be for the Redskins to keep the name and colors but change the logo. Unlike the “N word” the word “redskin” is not necessarily derogatory when separated from the Native American imagery. By changing the logo and keeping the name, Washington might have a nice compromise for both Native Americans and long time fans.
    I’ll use a brief case study that also happens to be from the professional sports industry to clarify my point. About 5 years ago, a minor league baseball team named the Peoria Chiefs successfully transitioned from a logo that depicted the head of a Native American chief to one that featured a Dalmatian dressed like a fire chief. The change was well received because the team was able to keep the 50-year-old “Chiefs” name by simply incorporating a logo that wasn’t offensive.
    Perhaps Washington could take a page our of the Peoria Chiefs book and slowly phase out the Indian logo over time by replacing it with a rendering of a “red skinned” hog head? For those who remember, the offensive line for the Redskins in the 80s and 90s was nicknamed “The Hogs.”
    Links to the original Peoria Chiefs logo, and the revised one are listed below for reference.
    Peoria Chiefs – Indian Chief Logo: http://www.logoserver.com/baseball/PeoriaChiefs2.GIF
    Peoria Chiefs – Fire Chief Logo: https://www.ticketreturn.com/prod2/images/PeoriaChiefLogo.gif

  • http://www.duetsblog.com/steve-baird.html Steve Baird

    Julian, interesting perspective, thanks for sharing.
    The team also owned at least at one time the truncated term SKINS, it might be easier to connect the new meaning you’re suggesting with that term since most hogs I’ve seen (growing up in Iowa no less) I’d call pink-skinned, not red, but I like the direction you’re heading.
    It will take some creative minds to solve this issue, as John Welch notes, the “an$wer” as to why the team probably hasn’t changed to date: http://thettablog.blogspot.com/2009/05/steve-baird-thinks-washington-redskins.html

  • Julian DeLuca

    Stephen, it might not be as difficult as you think to connect Redskins to a logo of a red skinned hog. The Philadelphia Eagles have a green and silver eagle as their logo, have you ever seen one of those? How about a yellow hawk (Iowa), a green deer (Milwaukee Bucks) etc. Ultimately the success will depend on a very creative and strategic rebranding plan that can successfully connect the new imagery with the history of the franchise.

  • John Maas

    I’m sure some people aren’t goign to like this but in my opinion, we are waaaay to worried about being pc now a days and I think the majority of it doesn’t actually come from the group that is directly offended by something, its people who are not part of that group that are calling out for changes and censorship because they feel that it is offending another group. what i would like to know is do the majority of native american feel offended by teams with names like Redskins, Indians or Cheifs or is it non native americans who are calling for these name changes because they are the ones that feel it is offending the native americans. The name wasn’t chosen to make a mockery of a group of people, teams chose “indian” names becasue they have a great respect for the culture and the things they represent (feirce warriors, pride, tradition, working together). Names like Redskins, Hurricanes, Raptors, Lions, Eagles, Rams, Titans…were all chosen because of the powerful symbols they represent. If they name is truly offending the great majority of the native american population then yes…try and come up with a compromise otherwise lets just take it for what it is, a pro football team name, and worry about more important things.

  • http://www.duetsblog.com/steve-baird.html Steve Baird

    John, don’t worry, someone has to take the other side or there would be no “debate,” but this is most certainly not an example of where the “politically correct” movement or “pc” has gone too far. It is a matter of just being correct, in my humble opinion. In fact, there was no such thing as “pc” when a group of Native Americans met with Edward Bennett Williams (former team owner) during the early 1970s to call for a name change among other changes. One of the changes that resulted from that meeting was a change to the team’s fight song, most notably, deleting reference to “scalping” (probably not one of the signs of “respect” you’re referring to), but the name remained, despite the fact that dictionaries recognized the term as offensive. This name is one that both Native American and non-Native Americans can see and understand as offensive. To me, it is only a matter of time before re-branding occurs, I’m just surprised how long the legitimate objections have been ignored by the team ownership and NFL. This is a great example of a case where there should not be an army of lawyers employed to defend a name so obviously wrong, but instead of army of creative types to make a re-branding effort a commercial success.

  • http://dan.tobias.name/ Dan T.

    Maybe they should change the name, but I don’t much like the double (triple, infinite) jeopardy involved in having to repeatedly defend the legal right to have it every time somebody else reaches the age of majority and claims to be offended by it. Being offended by a name that was in use before you were even born seems somewhat unreasonable.