Donald Sterling, the disgraced owner of the Los Angeles Clippers has decided to sell his team, and Steve Ballmer, the former CEO of Microsoft placed a bid of $2 billion to purchase it. Since the NBA approved his proposal, now many people are wondering the same thing: Should Balmer rename the LA Clippers? Do they need a clean slate? That’s an interesting discussion. Let’s look at it from branding perspective!
Before we go any further, let’s make a branding criterion very clear: Renaming a brand is arguably the most important decision an owner would ever make. We often forget that the name is the only part of your brand that you use in every imaginable form of communication (written and oral). Therefore, it is the only part of the marketing mix that you hope to never change.
Branding experts often use the following analogy: If a brand were a human being, then its logo would be “its hair.” On the other hand, its name would be “its face!” That metaphor sounds right. One needs to be quite desperate to even consider having a facial surgery. The same logic applies to changing a brand’s name: That needs to be your last resort!
In a nutshell, brand equity is a set of associations. A brand with high equity is stronger, more favorable, and successful. A brand with low equity is weaker, less differentiated, and less expensive. We can think off the Clippers’ equity as a bank account: Positive associations deposit money into your account, whereas negative associations withdraw cash from the account. So, what positive or negative knowledge, perceptions, and experiences are associated with the brand?
Luckily, the NBA bloggers of SB Nation were asked that question in 2012. They associated the Clippers brand with the following positive, and negative thoughts:
(Deposits) Fun, dunk, LobCity, excitement, CP3, Griffin.
(Withdrawals) Cheap, horrible, mismanaged, racist (mind you this is 2012!), slavery, joke, Sterling, like the team-hate the owner.
That sounds about right. But, I’d like to add three things to this picture. First, the way I see it (and I have no research to back up my opinions) when you hear the word Clippers, the first thing that comes to your mind is geographical association. It is located in Los Angeles, which automatically triggers fame, awe and most important euphoria. That’s a significant deposit!
Second, being in Los Angeles, automatically triggers the Lakers association: a winning team, glory, and legacy. The Clippers have been quite the opposite of that. Historically speaking, mediocrity (if you’d like to put a positive spin to is, you can say “potential”) is the word that has been associated with the Clippers. That’s a withdrawal.
Finally, under the leadership of Doc Rivers, the Clippers are slowly becoming a tougher, and more respected team, and more importantly a classier organization.
It is interesting that almost all the positives are associated with the Clippers brand, whereas most of the the negatives are associated with Donald Sterling. My eye test was telling me that, during the scandal seems like people did not associate the organization with racism, but its owner. Fans still came to support the Clippers, but protested the owner.
One can make arguments such as; it is a silly name, there are no clippers in L.A., that name is stained forever, and the Clippers epitomizes failed ownership. On the other hand, the awareness level of the Clippers is very high. It is a highly recognized brand. And throughout 33 excruciating years, while Lakers was ruling the league, L.A. fans supported this organization. To me, that is a good enough reason to keep the name. Remember, changing its name should be a brand’s last resort!
By removing Donald Sterling from the equation, the Clippers brand sheds most of its negative associations. That does not mean future is rosy though! Under the new management, the winning culture would better continue blossoming. Because based on its past performance the Clippers, unlike the Lakers, do not have the luxury to become mediocre before becoming good again. It simply does not possess such goodwill.
Also, the organization cannot simply go on a shopping spree and become the Brooklyn Nets of the West. Because that would be perceived as mismanagement. So, what Steve Balmer needs to change is not the Clippers’ name, but the culture of its management. Because changing the Clippers’ name, does not solve any of the organization’s real issues.