“It’s a 106 miles to Chicago, we’ve got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes; it’s dark and we’re wearing sunglasses. Hit it!” The Blues Brothers
MIAMI, Fla. (December 1, 2019) —
The franchise is named after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and was founded as the Chicago Fire Soccer Club on October 8, 1997, the event’s 126th anniversary. The team began play in 1998 as one of Major League Soccer’s first expansion teams.
Now, they have just undergone a rebrand, one which has drawn the anger of many of their most loyal fans. Just how bad is the new look? It’s bad, and not in the sense of it’s cool, or good, or “that’s sooo bad, take my money now.” No, it’s just plain bad.
Driving in the dark with sunglasses while smoking something may be a good metaphor for this rebrand.
It seems the Fire lost sight of one of the basic rules of branding:
If you’re considering a brand redesign, don’t stray too far from what made your brand successful and distinct in the first place. You want your current audience to recognise you post-redesign. Big, abrupt changes can alienate even loyal fans of your brand.
The Chicago Fire have been in existence over twenty years, long enough to build up a strong and dedicated fan base that takes pride in the team’s image, both on and off the pitch. Their fans have cultivated traditions just like fans of so many other clubs have done. The Chicago Fire are also largely under publicised in their market, the third largest metropolitan area in the U.S. They are a club that could use more attention and more fans, and this was the motivating factor behind why they negotiated their way out of their lease in suburban Bridgeview for a return to the downtown lakefront.
With the Fire moving back to Soldier Field for the 2020 season, there had been rumours that a rebrand was forthcoming. Again, something that could be considered very reasonable given the club’s objectives. An update to their look. What actually happened though, looks more like a complete makeover, one that has been sharply criticised by professionals and fans alike.
Making their new look official, the Fire unveiled a new logo along with the rest of their visual identity, complete with videos and stories created to support the change.
In the Fire’s press release, the team explained “The change from ‘soccer’ to ‘football’ reflects a long-term vision for the club as Chicago’s global ambassador to the world’s game.”
Call me a sceptic, but I find it unlikely that anyone in Tokyo, Krakow or Belo Horizonte will suddenly become a fan of the Fire just because Chicago is now a “football club,” rather than a soccer club. It makes no sense to change it after over 20 years of existence and it makes no difference in terms of fan support or identity. People will still just call the team the Chicago Fire.
There were also arguments that people confuse the badge for the actual Fire department. Again, this misses the mark. The use of a Florian cross, which is a symbol of firefighters the world over, was exactly the point of the Chicago Fire logo, to honour the Fire department, and it gave the Fire a thoroughly distinctive look. A much bigger problem from a branding perspective might be the name Chicago Fire itself. The popular NBC television show “Chicago Fire” appears on Google searches before the soccer team.
Discussing the elements of the logo, the team press release played up the fact that the oval-shaped logo is “first of its kind” in league history. I don’t find an oval logo particularly groundbreaking. It’s commonplace in Italian soccer, for example. It’s also very hard to use an oval logo well. I’ve tried. The most interesting part of the logo is the crown/flame element that is front and centre. The press release states that it’s supposed to represent “flames inverted to become a crown.” The team included a .gif in its official “Stand for Chicago” unveiling package on their website.
This reaction to the above tweet pretty much sums up what most people think about the new look and logo:
The choice of colours is also quite odd. It’s true that MLS has far too many teams with red and/or blue. But the Fire already have two decades in the books and people expect to see them dressed in red. The new colours also already exist in MLS: they look to be identical to those of Real Salt Lake. And with a new team coming to Saint Louis, preliminary images the investment/ownership group released give a strong indication that the team may well adapt the colours of that city’s flag: blue, red and yellow.
Going back the the so-called “fire crown” element, it looks more like mountains than a flame. Not to mention that flames are never geometrically perfect or form triangular shapes. Like the colours, this shape already exists in MLS in the logo of the Vancouver Whitecaps. All of this has led to more than one comment that the mirrored triple peak combined with those colours “makes it look like a bastard child of the Whitecaps and Real Salt Lake.”
If that wasn’t enough, then there is the not so little issue surrounding the crown itself. First of all, Chicago’s image is that of a hard-working city, not a place of royalty in any sense of the word. Second, there is a serious connotation that the crown symbol is connected to in Chicago. It has been a symbol of one of America’s most notorious gangs, The Almighty Latin King and Queen Nation, a/k/a the Latin Kings, the oldest and largest Latino street gang worldwide. The Latin Kings were, you guessed it, founded in Chicago. The press release announcing the new identity says this:
The branding exercise included consultation, focus groups and surveys with fans, partners, staff and MLS conducted over a period of more than 18 months. The process reviewed every aspect of the Club’s existing brand identity. The survey considered the original context of the Club’s name, crest and colors and the needs of a team building for future decades in a rapidly expanding league. Upon completion of the research, the badge, secondary marks and a new typeface were designed by creative agency Doubleday & Cartwright.
How does an 18-month-long “branding exercise” that included “consultation, focus groups and surveys with fans, partners, staff and MLS” not turn up this problematic information, anyway? Assuming this information did become known, wouldn’t it have been a better course of action to avoid using such symbols, in order to steer clear of the negative connotations?
The reaction on social media has been nothing short of disastrous. It seems as if the supporters are standing for Chicago alright, but in a different way than what the team would have hoped for. All you have to do is take a glance at the replies to the Fire’s tweets concerning the new logo and it’s quite clear that this new look has resulted in an overwhelmingly negative response from their fan base.
Despite the new logo being a daring attempt at trying something new, it nevertheless falls far, far short of the standard that you would expect from a rebrand at this point in MLS’s history. Gone are silly names like Clash, Burn and Wiz. Instead of being on a level similar to that of LAFC or Inter Miami, the Fire have fallen back into the MLS logo abyss, where they will keep company with the New England Revolution.
The logo reminds me of one of those generic video game soccer logos seen in the PES video game series for teams that the developers could not obtain licenses for. Think Manchester Red, Manchester Blue, West Midlands Village, North London, London FC, etc.
This is simply a poor look for the Fire. It defies credibility that this could be the end result of eighteen months of work. Supporters are right to reject the logo since it’s a sizeable downgrade from what they already had since their inaugural 1998 season.
I reached out to the Chicago Fire executive vice-president of communications and media to see if the team had any official position with regard to the overwhelmingly negative fan reaction. As of this writing I have not received a response.
Obvious Symbolism In Chicago
It wouldn’t have taken much to update the existing look without, excuse the pun, “burning it to the ground.” For starters, any designer who took time to really study Chicago, spend some time there on the ground, would have noted just how popular the city’s flag is. With its distinct light blue and white stripes and red six-point stars, the flag is commonly found throughout the city, and for good reason. The City of Chicago flag was rated the 2nd best in all of North America by the North American Vexillological Society. These people know their flags. In 2017, the flag celebrated its 100th anniversary of its adoption as the official city flag.
Symbols are important to Chicagoans, and the city’s municipal flag is no exception. The city also has its own municipal device, a Y-shaped symbol that is often found on older buildings.
A Study In Contrasts
Earlier this year, the Chicago Red Stars, the oldest professional women’s soccer club in the United States and a founding member of the NWSL in 2012 (after previously playing in several other leagues), unveiled a new home kit. Referred to as the “Elevated kit,” it is a raging success, both in terms of fan reactions and merchandise sales. Almost half the stock had sold on that first night of the release alone.
The kit was also the product of months of design ideas and in-house study aimed at portraying an image that would be unique to Chicago. The result was a home kit that incorporated the elevated train lines in Chicago, including the famous inner loop, as well as streets and the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Sweeping around the back, the pattern also uses the imagery to incorporate the city skyline. The kit also takes the famous stars from the city flag. It is pure Chicago.
The Red Stars’ kit, which is sold in both women’s and men’s cuts, has become so successful that it can be considered more than just a soccer shirt: It has moved into the category of lifestyle apparel, an achievement relatively few sports teams’ brands attain. When the team reached the championship of the NWSL last month, the Chicago Transit Authority even posted the following message on its twitter account, attaching the video the club had made earlier prior to the kit’s launch.
For more on the Elevated kit, read here: Chicago Red Stars Elevated Shirt A Massive Hit
Finding A Pathway Forward
Now back to the Fire.
It’s normal for a segment of the population to be critical of and resist change. It may be human nature. However, this rebrand has been so overwhelmingly poorly received that the club should give serious consideration to being responsive to fans’ reactions.
In the wake of the failed rebrand, scores of ideas have emerged. Artists, fans and amateurs alike have posted their renditions and ideas on social media. Here are two of the many ideas, both of which merit consideration by the Fire:
If you’re a fan of the Chicago Fire but not a fan of the new logo, the best advice is to not give up and do not be silent. Let your feelings be known vocally. Do not buy the new merchandise. Continue to wear the old shirt to games. There is precedent in the world of football for teams realizing that they’ve made a mistake with their logo.
In England, for example, Leeds United unveiled a new logo that depicted a supporter doing a “Leeds salute.” The fans revolted to such a degree that Leeds thought better of it and just continued using their current logo, even though it is also really terrible itself. In that case, Leeds officials claimed they had undergone a rigorous design process that lasted six months and saw over 10,000 people affiliated with the club consulted. Thousands of fans signed a petition calling for it to be scrapped.
“As we look at the feedback today I think it’s clear that the consultation process that we embarked on, that we were very confident had delivered a result, wasn’t extensive enough,” Angus Kinnear, Leeds’ managing director, told BBC Radio Leeds. “We need to reopen that consultation process very clearly.” In response to the wave of criticism, Leeds released the following statement:
“The volume and depth of opinions expressed reinforced the level of passion our fan base has for our club. While the current board of directors are custodians of Leeds United the fans will always be at the heart of everything we do, and you will be listened to. We conducted thorough research into the desire for a change to the crest to symbolise a new era for the club. However, we also appreciate the need to extend the consultation with supporters and we are committed to working with you to create an identity we can all be proud of.”
Staying in England, Everton FC only lasted one season with an updated crest before going back to the drawing board and working up a better look. Both of those situations are strong examples of clubs listening to their fans and doing better by them after revealing a disappointing look.
Mark Willis is an established artist, designer and soccer fan. He has designed what would be a far stronger crest for the Chicago Fire. See his work here: Identity Sketches For The Chicago Fire
If Fire fans continue to make their displeasure known, then this new logo may have a short shelf life. Naturally, the club itself is clearly proud of what they came up. Through silence, they have implicitly stated that they are not considering any changes at this time. The strength of the club’s position and its resolve not to listen to its supporters will be tested both by the degree and duration of the protests against the new identity. In situations where fans’ response is so overwhelmingly negative like it has been thus far, it’s worth at least revisiting the whole idea of a change, even if it’s done quietly and behind the scenes.
It’s fine to admit making a mistake and that may be what the Chicago Fire ultimately need to do in this situation.
In the meantime, Chicago Fire fans have also launched their own petition on Change.org which can be found here: Save Our Fire Identity. As of Tuesday, this petition had more than 4,500 signatures.
One other piece of advice: save this redesign for the Esports team.