Our New Crew: Say goodbye to the hard hats. Columbus' soccer team reinvents itself.
Even for someone born and raised in Columbus, someone who went to the city's public schools and, later, the Columbus College of Art and Design, Will Bennett became even a little more "Columbus" Wednesday night.
We're talking historically Columbus. So Columbus, generations will remember his work, if not his name (though they might do that too). His latest project, designing the Columbus Crew's new logo, which was publicly unveiled Wednesday night at an exclusive event at the LC Pavilion, will be worn for decades on jerseys, shirts, hats, jackets - maybe even permanently tattooed on bodies. It will be seen around the world as not only the team's new logo, but also become representative of a front-to-bottom, organization-wide reinvention, and, the Crew hopes as well, a symbol of the change its home city has undergone in the last decade or so, emerging from "Cowlumbus" to "Massive."
Bennett, who was also charged with designing the Blue Jackets' initial third jersey prior to joining the Crew, was there when the old construction worker logo was first revealed 20 years ago after Columbus was awarded the team. He attended games back at the Horseshoe and has followed the Crew since, watching Columbus grow from Major League Soccer's first official team to the unofficial home of the U.S. men's national team. He's seen the Crew build the country's first soccer-specific stadium and win the city's first professional championship.
Yet he's nowhere near the soccer - and Crew - fan his design partner, Eric Sinicki, the Crew's creative services coordinator, is.
"I am Columbus, and [Eric] brings a really authentic soccer background with him," said Bennett, the Crew's director of creative services, in an early October interview. "He's played soccer growing up, he follows the leagues around the world, he follows MLS - he's a huge soccer fan, not just a designer who works for a soccer team."
The two almost didn't get the job, though.
"There were a lot of people, league people and otherwise, who were telling us we should take this out-of-house," said Mike Malo, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of the Crew, who's also a native of Columbus (Gahanna). "The confidence we had in our guys to take on the project was really what helped us [keep the rebrand in-house], understanding there was that level of knowledge to see where we came from and where we want to go."
Started from the bottom
When Anthony Precourt bought the Crew in late July 2013, he said right away the construction workers were going. It sounded bold at the time, but that decision was for all intents and purposes made back in November 2012 when the Crew sent a survey to fans.
The responses showed that Millennials liked the Crew's colors and name, but not the Village-People-esque construction workers.
"One of the things that was concerning to us when we first started looking at our brand was the emerging demographic, the fastest growing demographic for our sport right now, liked our logo the least," Malo said. "Conversely when we looked at our colors, the black and gold, that same emerging demographic liked them the most."
Some clear directions started to form: Lose the logo, keep the colors, keep the name.
As Bennett said, the first rule of any rebranding effort is to know where you're going, so the Crew established some criteria essential for the logo change (and larger rebrand). Some of this came from the survey, while others from anecdotal tales.
One thing the new logo must do, the Crew learned, is to connect more strongly to Columbus. The construction workers logo, for instance, didn't even mention the city's name.
It also must celebrate the team's history, particularly its lineage of firsts, and it might go without saying, but the new logo must also distinguish the Crew as a soccer club, something else the construction worker crest lacked. So the organization added "SC" to the end of Columbus Crew, and made sure "Columbus" was prominent on the new logo.
"We positioned ourselves as America's team, not Columbus' team," Malo said. "We felt like we really needed to get back to our Columbus roots in this process."
Finally, the new logo and rebranding must also embrace the organization's unique fan culture.
"We have this young, smart, energetic fanbase in this young, smart, professional community," Malo said. "There's also this strong sense of family in soccer. It's a unique bond people have. And Columbus has a really strong sense of community that's really collaborative. How do we align with that?"
Knowing the story they wanted to tell, the designers created an "inspiration book," a lengthy document that analyzed "a bunch of different data, like what do other sports teams in our region look like, what are their colorations and how can we stand out and be different and still tell a story of who the Columbus Crew is," Bennett said. "That's where it all starts, finding the inspiration."
They looked at Columbus and Ohio, and as far away as Europe.
Sinicki stacked every logo in MLS on top of each other to see if an emerging shape could be determined. (Interestingly, it was a three-sided badge, much like the newly redesigned MLS logo.)
Similar approaches were done with other leagues around the world, and, in the end, the crest's circular shape was chosen because it was unique within the league and called to mind badges in the Bundesliga, Germany's professional soccer league.
"[It] serves the functions as a symbol of unity, but also as a nod to our German heritage," Malo said.
The designers also looked for distinguishing Columbus features, whether cultural or design-based, from the architecture of German Village and the Brewery District to the arches in the Short North and the city's skyline. Nautical elements like the Santa Maria were considered, along with the Statehouse and other capital city hallmarks like an eagle.
Fan-designed logos were looked at, like supporters group La Turbina's checkerboard pattern, and the 28-in-28 logo series done by MassiveCity FFC's Justin Bell and Columbus Alive last year.
"We looked a ton at what the fans were doing," Malo said. "The ones that had more meaning, we gravitated toward those.
"All those elements we studied and said, 'These are the people most connected to us, the [hardcore supporters section] Nordecke, and if these are their visual identities, why did they choose those and what are those elements that are important to the fan culture?'"
In all, the club went through 12 design phases and within each of those phases there were about 60 logos looked at, Malo said.
"If you look back at the first or second phase, it's really not all that recognizable; there's just so many twists and turns in these pieces," Bennett said.
If, in the end, many design inspirations were left off - "We're not going to have an arch like you see in the Short North, but we're going to have a subtle reference to arches [in the wordmark]," Malo said - many others remained behind, like the nod to the city's German roots.
Though a new Crew was born Wednesday, there's still much to be done in this larger reinvention.
"It's going to take time," Malo said. "You can't just flip a switch and say, 'We're different.' We have to act differently, we have to portray ourselves differently, we have to show people we're doing things differently as an organization, so that people believe it."
That will be done in several ways, and, in fact, has already been underway. The club announced Tuesday it has signed former Crew forward Kei Kamara, and Kamara will be introduced to the city at Wednesday's unveiling.
The marketing leading up to Wednesday's unveiling was another way to do this, Malo said.
"The teaser campaign is very different for us," Malo said. "Hopefully, it was a peek behind the curtains, [and showed] that we're a little more bold … and progressive."
Convincing the city of this change in culture also means making sure everyone in the organization knows the team's story, from ticket reps to ushers, Malo to Precourt. It means boots-to-the-pavement meetings with rotary clubs and re-evaluating potential sponsors so everything aligns with this tightly focused Crew.
Many other decisions remain, from smaller things like whether to change the MLS Cup and Supporters Shield signs in Crew Stadium from the shape of the old crest to the new badge, and larger considerations, like how to get fans more involved in the team.
"I don't think we've always operated in that way in the past, but this is us showing our fans we're changing as a brand, as a culture," Malo said.
One of the big, looming decisions will be how to spend $100,000 the Crew pledged Wednesday to help the stadium become "more authentically Columbus," Malo said.
"We're going to have the fans participate and help us shape how we should invest this $100,000," Malo said. "That's part of the commitment to a new brand. It's time to walk the talk, and now that we have [this vision] in place, it helps everybody think about how we should operate and live up to these ideals."
Two fans have already taken part in that process, and, though larger in scale, it was something Bennett said he and Sinicki won't forget.
"We are extremely excited. We've created something that's going to be the identifiable symbol of our club," Bennett said. "There's an amazing amount of pride to be able to do something like this in a city I was born and raised in, and I know Eric has the same sort of pride."