It has often been said that a brand is more than a logo, and this is undoubtedly true. However, in professional sports, other than the team nickname, the logo is the most important aspect of any brand. While Ottawa’s new CFL football team clearly got the first part horribly wrong, the Senators botched the second one after a promising start. In 1990, Bruce Firestone and Terrace Investments launched the Bring Back the Senators campaign, using the historic Senators name, which dates back to 1883. The jersey unveiled at the time was meant as a symbol for the campaign, not the finished product for the team itself, but it was a great first attempt. The logo featured the word Ottawa using the two Ts to form a representation of the iconic Peace Tower. To this day many remember the jersey fondly, but to be honest it probably needed some work to graduate to the big leagues. Of course what happened next might be the second biggest mistake in the history of the franchise (the first being the arena location), when the Peace Tower concept was thrown out completely and replaced with a centurion reminiscent of a U.S. college football team. The jokes were aplenty back in the day, making reference to a certain brand of condoms, but the real problem with the logo was its complete lack of connection to the city, or even to the name is was associated with. The connection between the word “senator” and a centurion is tangental at best. Senators wore togas and now tailored suits (and in some cases prison scrubs), not suits of armour. The logical leap from Ottawa Senators, to senator, to Roman Senate, to Roman Centurion requires a degree of explanation that should never be needed in a logo. If the connection isn’t apparent at first glance you’ve failed. Today I fear there is an entire generation that actually thinks a centurion is a senator simply because of that logo.
The rumour was that it was the NHL who strongly suggested a more commercial logo be incorporated. The problem is, the 90s were an absolute disaster in sports branding, so the idea that every team needed to have a “character” of some kind was en vogue. Given that directive, it’s easy to see why the team went with a centurion. A senator doesn’t exactly lend itself to a compelling character, an old, grey-haired white guy in a suit, or even a toga, doesn’t strike fear in the hearts of your opponents. The problem is the line of thinking that required a character in the first place. If you free yourself from the idea of needing a personification of the brand, you open up a ton of possibilities. It’s no coincidence that there isn’t a Montreal Canadien, a New York Yankee, or a Dallas Cowboy. It’s also not a fluke that the majority of the best sports brands on the planet have either iconographic logos (Dallas Cowboys, Toronto Maple Leafs), typographic logos (Montreal Canadiens, New York Yankees, Green Bay Packers) or a combination of the two (Manchester United and most soccer teams). In the cases where a brand is represented by a physical thing, it is nearly always a literal representation of that thing, not a thematically related approximation of that thing. In most cases, the thing in question is an animal (Bears, Eagles, Lions, etc.) but in others it’s a person (Blackhawks, Pirates, Raiders) or a an object (Red Sox, Red Wings). One commonality among most great sports brands is that their logos rarely ever change, and don’t try to hard to be trendy of stylish. They are iconic because they are simple, provide a connection to the community and are easy to relate to the team nickname.
The worst part is, the Ottawa Senators had, and currently have, just such a brand, the iconic ‘O’ logo and the classic red, white and black barber pole. Yet in 1992, rather than update the Peace Tower logo, or revert to the classic ‘O’, we were given the centurion, and the rest is history. Silver Sever Sens had a great post on the idea of changing to the Heritage jerseys full-time, and I must thank Amelia for doing a lot of the legwork I had planned with this post. As she points out, most teams, and particularly the long-standing ones, have left their logo untouched over the years. This would seem to suggest the Sens should do so as well. However, one major caveat is that the Sens didn’t start in 1992, they have a history dating back more than 100 years. The Ottawa Senator have a historic brand to fall back on. This isn’t a case of changing the logo mid-stream with no rhyme or reason, this is correcting a mistake that was made over 20 years ago. That was the error in changing the logo, not any future decision to return to the classic branding. Many of the issues the Sens are running into these days in terms of fling the building are, in my opinion, related to having a weak brand and little connection the the city. The team plays on the outskirts of town (I live five minutes from the rink so I’m allowed to say this), and has a brand that has no connection to Ottawa and only a weak connection to the word senators. Judging from the reaction I have seen to the Heritage Classic jerseys, fans have been craving this kind of connection, and without seeing the numbers I’m comfortable in guessing that the Heritage Jersey probably outsells the standard ones, or comes very close, despite not being the official home sweater. This kind of connection doesn’t require a fancy logo, a mean-looking character, or a kid-friendly brand (the ultimate marketing fallacy), it requires a symbol that means something to someone, that forms a bond, and that creates a rallying cry for fans. I doubt the Maple Leafs are concerned with how their logo connects with toddlers, I’m sure Manchester United isn’t considering making their logo “meaner” and I know for a fact there would be riots if the Montreal Canadiens tweaked their crest to make it more “3D”.
A great brand doesn’t need to exude testosterone or make a good mascot, it simply needs to connect on a basic level with fans. Concerns that the ‘O’ logo would be seen as a zero were unfounded, and simply reflected the insecurities of some people who didn’t feel comfortable standing up for a strong hockey heritage in this town. Hockey in Canada, and in Ottawa, doesn’t need a consume party theme, a gimmick or a modern twist, it simply needs to be an honest representation of what this town is about. The fact that the Sens logo has changed so often is a testament to the fact that people aren’t connecting with it, if they were there would be no need to change it every five years. There should be little fear that a single tear will be shed for the centurion should it be retired. Fans have shown little interest in the Roman theme in general dispute attempts by the team to stoke interest with gladiators and other gimmicks. Now that we have a nice set of heritage jerseys, it would be a great time to correct one of the great errors in franchise history…bring back the ‘O’ full time, ditch the Roman gimmick and concentrate on the rich tradition of hockey in this city. Keep Spartacat and the centurion as a secondary brand if necessary, but embrace the past and use it to make a clean break with an era that represented a few too many rebirthing pains. Despite the current uncertainty, this team is going nowhere, Ottawa, and Canada in general, are too lucrative as hockey markets to be abandoned, but that doesn’t mean the Sens should leave these clear opportunities for more revenue and increased fan loyalty behind.
Next step: downtown arena.