In some of his first interviews after acquiring the Carolina RailHawks, new owner Steve Malik has suggested that he likes the RailHawks name, but thinks a rebranding could be in order. This morning, it has come to light that Carolina FC LLC, the parent company of the RailHawks has registered a trademark on "Carolina Flight" and acquired the domain name CarolinaFlightFC.com.
So while the RailHawks have designed a new commemorative logo and started to promote season tickets for their 10th Anniversary season, it appears that a name change may be on the near term horizon.
As someone who obviously has close emotional ties with the origin of the RailHawks name, I have been asked several times already what my opinion is on a possible rebrand.
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about it. As a marketing professional, I have been through branding and product naming exercises many times in my career. It's always a difficult process with plenty of potential pitfalls along the way. But when done right, a new brand can become a symbol of the culture, attributes, and values your organization brings to it's stakeholders and customers.
The case for a brand change
The Carolina RailHawks have a checkered past. We are on our fourth ownership group in 9 years of play. The first set of owners ran into some legal troubles back in Rochester, the second set of owners put the team up for sale on Ebay, and the third owners were convicted of international conspiracy and fraud in the ongoing FIFA scandal. The team has never been well marketed in the Triangle. Most residents of the RDU area have one of three impressions about the team:
- The RailHawks are my local soccer team and I enjoy watching them play. I sure wish they could do better on the field and off the field.
- The RailHawks are "minor league" and I have no interest in them.
- We have a soccer team in the Triangle? And they are called what?
As Malik enters the picture, he has promised big changes on and off the field, more marketing and community engagement, and a vision to aspire to make the franchise a top-level professional sports and entertainment organization. A rebranding of the team is a clear signal that he is not interested in "more of the same" from the organization. It creates a sea change in the culture of organization, it shakes the club loose of the baggage it has carried for the past 7 years or so, and creates a new impression on folks that may have dismissed the previous RailHawks organization as irrelevant in the local sports landscape.
The case against a brand change
The Carolina RailHawks brand is a unique one. Google the word "RailHawks" and you get pages upon pages of results that are directly tied to our local soccer team. Now Google "Carolina Flight." You get results about a local girls lacrosse team, an amateur basketball club, cheap airfare to the Carolinas, the Wright Brothers, etc. Certainly, if the RailHawks changed their name to Carolina Flight, there are both organic and paid methods for search engine optimization that will promote the team to the first page on a Google search, but those results will always be confounded with other, non-soccer related results because of ubiquity of the words "Carolina" and "Flight". Not only does this make it harder for customers to find you online, it actually makes the team's job of marketing harder as you have to be very specific in your paid adword or online customer profiling/analytics to make sure you are capturing fans interested in the soccer team, and not a cheap trip to the Outer Banks.
Despite the challenges the RailHawks have faced in past years, 2016 will be our 10th Anniversary season. Among the tumultous backdrop of lower division soccer in this country, with teams folding, leagues splitting, the constant argument for or against promotion/relegation, the Carolina RailHawks have managed to persevere. It would be a shame to not celebrate that for what it is truly worth. The team has built a solid fanbase (average attendance of 4,539 in 2015 is only about 10% shy of New York Cosmos) with a firm attachment to the RailHawks name and a wardrobe full of orange shirts, jackets, and scarves. While I believe most all of those fans would happily get on board with a rebranded team, there is a sentimental and nostalgic attachment to the name that would be lost among the team's most loyal and committed fans.
In my opinion, the RailHawks biggest problem today is not a negative brand impression of the team, it's anonymity in the marketplace. The team has already signaled its intention to remedy that by bringing on a new VP of Marketing in the coming weeks.
To change or not to change?
So should they or shouldn't they? It's a really tough call. I believe with a new focus on marketing and messaging to the Triangle, the RailHawks organization could easily shake any lingering poor impressions that might exist in the marketplace without a name change. For many, it will be the first time they have even heard of the RailHawks. That said, I can truly appreciate how a brand change can quickly signal to the staff, customers, and community that this is not the same old minor league soccer franchise you know about -- that things are different now and we are headed to a whole new level. My sense is that this is the current thinking in the C-Suite at Carolina FC LLC.
So When Do You Change?
As much as I hate to say it, if there is a brand change in the pipeline, it must happen as soon as possible. While celebrating the 10th Anniversary season of the RailHawks would be nostalgic for all involved, the biggest bang for your buck value in a brand change will come right now, as soon as possible. There's a new sheriff in town, and this is the way we roll.
If the RailHawks are changing their name, they should pull the trigger the immediately. If they wait a year, it's an opportunity lost. And it would have been nice of them to tell their customers before they promoted their huge locker room sale last week where season ticket holders and fans stocked up on merchandise that may become irrelevant in a matter of days.
In the meantime, does anybody know how to draw a hawk that transforms into a jet?