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Retiring controversial logos

Now that the Super Bowl has been won and lost for another year, American sports fans will soon turn to Spring training and another season of Major League Baseball.

Sadly for some, the MLB season will be the last for one of the oldest and most controversial characters of the league, who will be retired following the last pitch after having been seen consistently in the competition for the last 70 years.

I refer, of course, to “Chief Wahoo” who has continuously served as the mascot for the Cleveland Indians since first being applied to their uniforms in 1948.

It was reported last week that the decision has been made to “retire” the use of the logo on team uniforms at the end of 2018.

The use of Native American names and logos in relation to team sports has been debated over a number of years. Many fans have grown up with and identify strongly with the branding of their favourite team. However, others consider the use of culturally orientated names and logos to be offensive, outdated or racist.

There are a number of professional, college and amateur sports teams in the US which have previously adopted Native American names and logos. Those include the Atlanta Braves and Washington Redskins, neither of whom have indicated any intention to change their name or logo. It is suggested that a number of those teams adopted Native American logos and names as a compliment due to the skill and fighting qualities of Native Americans.

Others such as the (University of North Dakota’s) Fighting Sioux have taken a different view and have become the Fighting Hawks and St John’s University Redmen are now the Red Storm.

Over the past year, the MLB commissioner of baseball has placed some pressure on Cleveland to make a change in order to achieve a goal of cultural diversity and inclusion. On that basis, Cleveland accepted the position that the logo was no longer appropriate for on-field use on the team’s uniforms, banners or signs in the stadium.

However, Cleveland has said that fans will still be able to buy merchandise which bears the team’s logo from souvenir shops in the stadium as well as from other outlets in the Cleveland area. However, those items will not be promoted more broadly and will not be available for sale through the MLB website.

It seems that at least part of the reason for continuing to sell merchandise in that way is so the logo will continue to be used as a trade mark. As trade marks work on the basis of use it or lose it, if Cleveland were to cease use of the Chief Wahoo mark altogether, then it could be removed from the trade marks register and potentially registered and/or used by others.

Maintaining use of a mark is one of the reasons why brands who have no active presence in Australia but have registered their trade marks here (such as cult US burger chain In-N-Out burger) have one day pop-up sales. Those events serve the purpose of promoting the brand and also are sufficient to claim use of the trade mark in Australia.

Whilst there isn’t a proliferation of cultural names in the Australian market, (where mascots include bunnies and chooks, swans and saints) it also seems that similar complaints haven’t yet been voiced to any great extent. It may just be a matter of time before complaints are made about the likes of Super Rugby’s Waikato Chiefs.

What does this mean for your brand?

I think the steps these iconic sport teams have or plan to take carry a few key messages which apply equally to businesses and organisations: It is important for organisations to regularly and critically examine whether their brand is current, reflects who they are and what they stand for, and also connects with their market or stakeholders – or consider whether it should evolve. Organisations shouldn’t be afraid to refresh their branding or to make changes, particularly where there is a positive message to put forward or a way to positively engage with the market. As the adoption of a new brand often means the retirement of an old brand, a strategy should be developed to prevent the loss of rights or other businesses potentially benefiting if the brand is no longer used

I trust that all sports fans will enjoy the upcoming season in their chosen code/s.

My irreverent friend tells me that he looks forward to driving to a New Zealand Warriors game in his Jeep Grand Cherokee.

"The content of this publication is for reference purposes only. It is current at the date of publication. This content does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Legal advice about your specific circumstances should always be obtained before taking any action based on this publication."