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Guardians Of Cleveland

The people who led the rebranding of one of baseball’s oldest franchises had to balance the past while building for the future

By Erik Bacharach
The team will play its first home game as the Cleveland Guardians on April 15.getty images

Above the left field gate at Progressive Field hangs a banner counting down the days until the team plays its first game there as the Cleveland Guardians, accompanied by the team’s new logo.

 

That banner also serves as a ticking clock for the franchise. Work is still being done around the ballpark to transition signage from “Indians,” the nickname the team used for more than a century, to “Guardians,” which the team unveiled last summer as its new name.

It is an undertaking without parallel in recent baseball history. It’s been years since any of the other 30 active franchises has changed primary nicknames without also changing cities (“Tampa Bay Devil Rays,” anyone?), and even longer since a club with Cleveland’s history did so. Those rebrands came long before the importance of merchandise sales, regional sports network viewership and social media engagement. This one also comes with more entrenched memories than any other, from the franchise’s first World Series championship in 1920, through its powerful teams of the 1940s and ’50s, its dreary years in the back half of the 20th century and its revival in the mid-1990s that has made it one of baseball’s most successful clubs ever since.

The front office staffers who executed the name change knew all along this was going to be about more than just new signage or new merchandise.

“For many [fans], it is part of their identity,” said Jason Wiedemann, the Guardians’ director of brand management.

That sentiment served as the Guardians’ North Star as they delicately navigated the tricky business of rebranding a storied franchise. They had to contend not only with the overarching feeling among a large contingent of the fan base that they were tampering with something sacred, but many micro-level challenges such as supply chain issues, the MLB lockout and confidentiality ahead of the new name unveiling.

The organization passed those tests.

“We are really happy with how the rebranding is progressing,” Wiedemann said. “While we know change always takes time to adjust to, we are really optimistic about this brand and believe it has the potential for Clevelanders to rally around it for generations to come.”

Fans can now get over 1,000 items of merchandise with the new branding.getty images

On July 3, 2020, the team released a statement announcing plans to consider a name change, a response to the social unrest across the country. On July 23, 2021, the franchise announced its new name with a video narrated by one-time Cleveland resident Tom Hanks before officially launching the new era on Nov. 19.

The rebrand began in earnest in late 2020, when the organization tapped New York-based Sports Car Brand Creative Corp. to help them determine a new name — and direction.

Dudley Versaci, the creative agency’s chief strategist, said about 14 people on his team — from production designers to a lettering artist to a narrative director — touched the project.

“They had already put together a long list and started to whittle down a short list for naming options by the time we were on board,” Versaci  said. “We were that outside sounding board and came in to help with the brand story and design options.”

Fan feedback was important throughout the process. For example, that feedback made it clear that Slider, the team mascot, had to stick around no matter what the new name was.

Confidentiality was difficult, said Alex King, Guardians senior vice president of marketing and brand strategy. Up until just a few weeks before the unveiling, fewer than a dozen people in the organization knew the new name. As the unveiling approached and the Guardians prepared the announcement, that number grew to roughly two dozen.

The 99-day MLB lockout, during which the team could not interact with its players, forbade the club from leveraging its players to help with promotion and marketing. Now that it’s over and players are in Arizona for spring training, the Guardians’ production team is there with them, capturing photos and videos of players in the new uniforms.

The team now has over 1,000 products and styles of Guardians apparel available for purchase in their team store and online. Global supply chain disruptions due to the pandemic meant it took several months for suppliers to ramp up and produce merchandise, but Wiedemann said those issues did not significantly alter their rollout plans. He added there are no lingering supply chain-related issues that are affecting their merchandising efforts.

“Generally speaking, we’ve been very happy with merchandise sales — both immediately when we went on sale and now that the baseball season is fast approaching,” King said.

And while all “Indians” signs are expected to be replaced by Opening Day, there will be vestiges of the former brand scattered throughout the park.

“Fans will still see ‘Indians’ in the ballpark where we celebrate historic moments like our 1948 World Series [title] or franchise icons like Larry Doby,” Wiedemann said. “We are not erasing our past.”

The Guardians’ front office continues to hear groans from fans who grew up cheering for the Indians. And they understand that sentiment.

“Not everyone was happy with that decision and not everyone wanted ‘Guardians’ as their first choice,” Wiedemann said. “But we think that everyone at least understands the methodical process and considerations that went into the decisions.”

It’s that effort to get it right that King is most proud of.

“I’ll cherish the team that worked on this — rebranding a team in less than 18 months is a herculean feat and that group made it happen and had fun along the way,” he said. “It’s been so cool to get positive reinforcement about where we’re headed all while seeking to engage and have empathy for the folks who are still wrestling with the change.”

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