AN INDEPTH LOOK AT DESIGNING AN NHL TEAM IDENTITY
The Anaheim Ducks are currently playing in the National Hockey League’s Western Conference finals for the first time since 2007, the year of their only Stanley Cup championship.
This franchise has come a long way since starting out as the expansion Mighty Ducks of Anaheim some two decades ago. Like many Southern Californians, they reinvented themselves along the way, recasting themselves as the Anaheim Ducks and shedding an identity that infuriated many hockey purists.
The Ducks’ current run provides a perfect opportunity to take an inside look at the transition from “Mighty Ducks” to simply “Ducks,” and to imagine what might have been.
The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim entered the NHL as an expansion franchise, beginning play in 1993-94. Owned by The Walt Disney Company and named for Disney’s 1992 movie of the same title, the Mighty Ducks employed an eggplant, purple, and jade color scheme and a decidedly Disney-esque logo.
The Mighty Ducks’ logo was created by Disney artists Tony Cipriano and Fred Tio, the end result of a process which saw some 500-700 ideas submitted by Disney employees. Mighty Ducks general manager Jack Ferreira was quoted as saying that the original color scheme was to have been purple and gold, “but that looked like an Easter egg, so we eliminated the gold and replaced it with silver. We wanted something totally different, totally unconventional.” They certainly got it.
The logo embraced many of the visual trends that came to personify sports branding in the early 90s, all rolled out by Disney in an explicit appeal to youth and families. Disney’s marketing prowess was seen as a major asset by the NHL, then widely seen as a league in decline.
Disney Chairman Michael Eisner summed things up neatly when he said “we’re a theatrical company. There's nothing we won't stoop to do as far as silliness. We hope to lighten things up, make hockey a family sport, not just for a bunch of guys who are out looking for a fight.”
Despite a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002-03, Disney’s foray into the NHL was a highly unprofitable one. After a few years of financial success, the team began to hemorrhage money, with image-conscious Disney taking a public relations beating along the way.
In February 2005 Disney sold the Mighty Ducks to Broadcom Corporation co-founder and Orange County resident Henry Samueli and his wife, Susan. One of their first major decisions involved a commitment to a total team rebrand, with “Mighty Ducks of Anaheim” giving way to the more conventional-sounding “Anaheim Ducks.”
In distancing the franchise from its Disneyfied roots, Henry Samueli said “we wanted to be more traditional in terms of the name. In fact, it was a little too tied to the movie.” Samueli decided to keep the “Ducks” name after the team conducted informal surveys which revealed that a vast majority of season ticket holders favored it. “If you have to change the name,” he said, “you’re wiping out 13 years of brand history.”
The Ducks selected veteran sports branding firm Frederick & Froberg Design Office to handle the project. The company, based in Montclair, New Jersey, today operates as Fanbrandz. Creative director Bill Frederick —a friend and colleague in our sometimes small sports design community—recalls that the design process took place starting in October 2005, the outset of an aggressive timeline that required bi-weekly meetings in Newport Beach, California with team owners as well as the entire Ducks marketing and management teams.
Jettisoning eggplant and jade was an easy call—ownership immediately signaled that they wanted to go with a more refined color palette that was more evocative of Orange County. Faced with a blank canvas, Frederick embarked upon an exhaustive research phase that included a full profile of the team’s historic branding, a review of other sports franchises and teams that used birds or ducks as a symbol, and a color palette overview of all NHL teams.
“The initial design explorations covered all of the style approaches we had discussed as a way to ‘get it out of our system’. It became clear that the owners and management didn’t want an angry duck, an animated duck, an aggressive duck, or an ornithologically-correct duck—no matter the illustrative style, “ says Frederick. “None of these approaches resonated with the Samueli’s vision for a classic but sophisticated update with a color scheme that showed competitive toughness and a tie to Orange County. Our discussion turned to eliminating an image of a literally-depicted duck entirely, and we took a piece of one logo exploration that used a stylized duck foot as a graphic holding shape that also formed the shape of a capital ‘D.’ Henry and Susan immediately loved the approach of suggesting a duck without having to illustrate it. I sketched it as we talked, and when I showed them and the rest of the board room the quick drawing, they instantly said, ‘that’s it!’”
Visual priorities started firming up rapidly at this point in the process. A black, white, and metallic gold color palette—punctuated by an accent of orange—a symbolic tie to Orange County— would replace eggplant and jade. Frederick said “once we knew the direction we were pursuing, we experimented with many renditions of ‘D-feet.’” We then engaged a public relations firm to execute a focus group of self-described “avid and casual Mighty Ducks fans” to gauge their response to the proposed new branding. This took place in January of 2006.
“We did a secure online survey with the intended ‘D-foot’ mark placed in an oval, combined with a second mark that was not in contention that we termed the ‘flying duck.’ The survey came back very favorable for the D-foot. However, there was a hitch. One of the survey participants took a cell phone photo of the D-foot logo on the computer screen and leaked it to a blog. The logo then appeared on the Mighty Ducks’ Wikipedia page stating that it was the new logo. We quickly edited the page and since we were still well ahead of the rebrand unveiling, we came up with a stealthy solution. We took cell phone screen shots of the ‘flying duck’ logo as well as several other designs already out of contention and posted each of those on blogs claiming that they were the actual rebrand. Within a couple of days, the confusion over what the ‘real’ rebrand was going to be had its intended effect, and we were able to plan the unveiling without being spoiled by the leak.”
In the world of NHL jerseys—or “sweaters”—the crest logo means everything. Think of the most iconic on-ice identities in hockey and, most likely, a logo unencumbered by wording or an abundance of detail comes to mind. The Montréal Canadiens’ “CH” logo, the Philadelphia Flyers’ modern flying “P,” and the Detroit Red Wings’ winged wheel crests all fit the bill.
In the case of the newly-minted Ducks, their approved logo was quite horizontal. Bill Frederick says that “we knew that it would not fill the front of the sweater the way a classically-proportioned crest should fit. We were concerned about the lack of visual impact, and did side-by-side tests to bear that out. Ultimately it was decided that we needed some time to establish the new name and new brand before introducing the simple “D-foot” as the crest.” It finally broke free of the rest of the word “Ducks” in 2010, introduced in the form of a third jersey. For the 2014-15 season, the “D-foot” is the featured crest across all jerseys.
The new name and visual identity were introduced on June 22, 2006. At the time, the team noted that the new look represented “a distinctive departure from the original design, introducing a more sophisticated, powerful and timeless identity.”
The new identity clearly inspired the Ducks—they went on to win the Stanley Cup in their first season in their new togs, thus becoming the first West Coast team to win Lord Stanley’s silver Cup since the 1925 Victoria Cougars.
As this 2014-15 Ducks team tries to duplicate that feat, they are still clad in black, gold, and Orange County orange—a look that has come to be associated with a culture of winning.
The Anaheim Ducks may no longer be “Mighty,” but they are still playing deep into springtime, looking for yet another Disney ending.