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Does The Hornets Brand Still Have Sting?

9 Jun

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The Charlotte Hornets officially returned to the National Basketball Association (NBA) last month, when the club known as the Charlotte Bobcats relinquished its moniker in time for the draft lottery. The lottery is the league’s annual sweepstakes to determine which teams pick first from the latest pool of player prospects and might be as good a time as any for a choice PR move. This change is more than a symbolic gesture, however: it’s an exorcism, which effectively removes the mediocrity of one brand identity and reinstalls the popular heritage of another. 

Returned to its home town, the Hornets badge has immediate impact again and this is mostly due the nostalgia that sports fans feel for the original club. The Hornets — not the Bobcats — now have the ninth pick in June’s NBA draft and suddenly seem like a team any young star might want to play for. Of course, this is the power of branding, when it works.

Before the Hornets were shifted to New Orleans by former owner George Shinn, in 2002, they had been a lively and popular part of the NBA. Fans packed into the Charlotte Coliseum in those early years like, well, bees into a hive, which is no mean feat given that it has the capacity to house 24,000 people. The Hornets led the league in attendance during their first eight seasons, which included 358 consecutive sell-outs, even though they were a below average ball club for much of that period. 

The team did have some very good years on the court however, mostly between 1992 and ’98 when they twice made the playoffs. But any buzz the club built went beyond the win-loss column. The Hornets were flat out likable. They wore teal and purple uniforms with pinstripes, had engaging stars like Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning, and perhaps most importantly, were branded with a cartoon hornet. The emblem seems a little quirky in 2014, but it was whimsical in the late eighties, anthropomorphized with a feistiness that endeared fans to it. It was at least more lively than the Miami Heat’s flaming ball logo or the Orlando Magic’s Disney-style banner.

Indeed, the Hornets nickname has been evoking a fighting spirit in Charlotte for more than 230 years. Most notably, it was used by British army commander General Cornwallis to describe the home of Charlotteans during the Revolutionary War, when he referred to it as a “hornets nest of rebellion”. The city has used the hornet name for many of its sporting teams since those formative years, but first adopted it for pro basketball in 1988.

By 1995, the Hornets were selling more jerseys than any other NBA team, despite the fact that they would never make it past the second round of the playoffs. The Hornets brash uniforms were the work of local clothing designer, Julian Alexander, who clearly understood how to compliment the more familiar Carolina Blue with a less common sporting color like teal. It was certainly different from traditional gear like that worn by the New York Knicks or Boston Celtics, and yet the combination worked. The Hornets not only looked good but were a fun and fast-breaking affair that interrupted our obsession with Eastern Conferences stalwarts like the Celtics and Detroit Pistons. The timing was perfect.

Those glory days aren’t lost on NBA great Michael Jordan, who today owns the Charlotte organization, and is largely responsible for the reincarnation of the Hornets. He spoke about the move in a recent press release:

“It was important to us to acknowledge the heritage of the Charlotte Hornets when bringing the name back to the market,” said Jordan. “The purple and teal color scheme was instantly recognizable as being associated with the original Hornets and we felt it was only appropriate to utilize the colors once again with this historic brand.”

Given Charlotte’s association with the logo and fans passion for the brand, it’s easy to see why the Louisiana iteration never really had a chance. The Bobcats’ on-court performance didn’t help either. While they made a brief playoff appearance this year, the team had been a floundering for around a decade, reaching the playoffs just one other time, in 2004, and finished the 2011-12 season with a 7-59 record. That effort was good enough for the worst winning percentage in NBA history (.106).

A fresh start was needed. So the decision to revamp the New Orleans basketball club was made last year, seeing those old Hornets morph into Pelicans, Louisiana’s state bird. The pinstripes and teal also made way for colors more befitting the new identity, namely creole blue and mardi gras gold.

It was this change that left the door open for the second coming of Charlotte Buzz. Late last year, Bobcats brass estimated it would cost them about $3 million to rebrand, according to The Charlotte Observer, because so much signage and other logo material would have to be replaced. The Observer also reported that both Jordan and former NBA commissioner David Stern advocated a switch to the Hornets to better market Charlotte’s team. 

Both men likely saw the opportunity to tap into the ongoing nostalgia for the brand, which is evident in the number of people that still wear Charlotte Hornets apparel. To give you an idea, the Bobcats began selling Hornets merchandise at Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena in January of this year, which contributed to some of the biggest merchandise sales the club has seen, according to a report in the Charlotte Business Journal.

Some of this has to do with the growing appetite for retro sports apparel among younger fans and fashion horses, but there’s also the fact that we simply miss a club a brand that we liked. Ask any NBA fan about those teams with Johnson, Bogues and Mourning and watch their eyes light up. It was a good time and since it’s end, we’ve truly had a chance to miss it.

Bogues, who was recently named as the Hornets new ambassador, described to me last year how special the original Charlotte team was.

“It was an amazing match made in heaven when I arrived in Charlotte,” he wrote in an email. “It was a franchise that was looking for young talent, so to be a part of the upstart along with Dell Curry, Rex Chapman, veterans like Earl Cureton, Kurt Rambis and Kelly Tripucka, was a special time. Charlotte was everything I envisioned as a pro. The fans made it special, in addition to incoming young players like Larry Johnson and Alonzo Mourning.”

Bogues attended a ceremony earlier this year with other Hornets legends to unveil the team’s new logo and typography. The 2014 hornet is more aggressive, with sharper eyes, raised antennae, spread wings and pointed stinger, which shows its ‘relentless intensity’, according to the club’s marketing spiel. It also says that the logo pays tribute to the original Hornets with its white accents, a stinger and the inclusion of a basketball. The team name is written across the insect’s body, instead of surrounding it the way it used to. The overall effect is familiar.

“The logos are the foundation of an organization’s brand identity, and our goal was to design logos that would have awareness, be relevant and resonate with our fans,” Bobcats chief executive, Fred Whitfield, said recently.

The designers have certainly done a good job of transporting the brand’s character into the new era, however the old cartoon logo will not be shelved thankfully. It’s received some small tweaks and will once again be part of the overall Charlotte Hornets experience.

“We recognize the heritage behind the original logo and our goal was to connect to the past but also include elements of an evolution,” said Whitfield.

The Charlotte Hornets’ careless demise was a cruel blow to fans. Now their return feels right, triumphant even. Marketing guru Seth Godin once wrote that buzz is a function of interest and timing. In Charlotte, they’re saying the buzz is back.

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How the Grizzlies made the NBA fun again

16 May

The Grizz’s stunning playoff run that ended Sunday against the slightly more experienced Oklahoma Thunder, threw us back to the basketball of our youth the way the DeLorean provided Marty a cooler version of his parents.

So here’s how the Grizzlies have made the NBA fun again:

They share the ball

It’s a novel idea, I know. On the break, the rock travels from sideline to sideline, or down the middle with a single bounce, or over the defense with a lob. Bottom line, it changes hands, and it’s so very refreshing.

They defend as a team

It’s not about attention-seeking spikes into the front row or two-armed roughhousing across the body of the scorer. They step into charges, scrap for loose balls and flush dribblers into turn overs. They crowd the key, disrupt the flow of perimeter attackers and jab their paws into the flight of passes. And it works because everyone buys in.

Their guards play guard, not hybrid ball

Mike Conley likes to shoot, sure. But he balances it by looking for open teammates, hitting the entry pass into the post if it’s there, or if not, bouncing it to the wing. He’s getting better at these decisions. Meanwhile, Vasquez is an effective slasher and Tony Allen’s size rattles opponents into submission. He also charges the floor and finishes with flair. Then there’s OJ Mayo who leaps into a fray and somehow leaves with points.

Z-bo is playing like Bird

Zach Randolph has, after years of frustration and futility, turned into a guy you can root for. He catches everything in the post. He spins by, steps past, and head fakes defenders with McHale-like pedigree. He drops in short corner fades, usually, when they’re most needed. And he forces the defender into committing and fouling when nothing else is working. His offensive onslaught these playoffs has been nothing short of Larry-esque and you can’t help but cheer.

The Memphis crowd love their guys

It’s a passionate and raucous clientele at Fed Ex Forum, even when the scoreline looks bleak. They wave towels, wear playoff white and yell their lungs out to a Memphis Beat. Who said this would be an unsuccessful NBA market?

They have energy

The Grizz never settle. They anticipate steals and visualize fast breaks. They scurry and scuttle plays, sapping the clock and the strength of their opponents. Perimeter defenders shift with urgency. Forwards throw themselves into the key, eager to collect a pass or find a rebound. It’s high energy, Red Bull-infused sort of stuff.

This team is likable

These big Bears play more like bats out of hell. They’re fast and furious, without Diesel’s extra bulk and Walker’s distracting looks. They have fun, and it all starts with Randolph being at ease and loving his job again.