What cities can learn from sports teams about branding

5 min read

When we first started CivicBrand, our original logo had a crest-shaped icon. We’ve since dropped the icon and simplified our logo to just the wordmark, but the spirit, meaning, and drive behind that original crest still stands as a defining mission for CivicBrand.

I was in London with my uncle on a soccer trip. These were annual trips where we would pack in as many Premier League games as we could cram into our short visits. Far beyond just watching great soccer live, the real draw was the experience of the crowds and the overwhelming pride they had for their teams.  The experience of riding a train to the game is where it all started. As we got closer and closer to each stadium, more and more fans would slowly board the train at each stop until eventually, the entire train is full of home team supporters all wearing jerseys, holding up scarves, and singing the many chants and songs that everyone knows by heart. These fans are forever loyal to their team, even when they are cussing up a storm about how s*%t they are playing. These teams’ fan bases are incredibly localized to their part of town and fans follow their teams even in the lower leagues. This pride for their local team is what inspired the shield in our original logo. Premier League teams all have some kind of crest-style badge on their kits, and they wear them with pride. I kept asking myself, what if people were that passionate about their neighborhood or city?



Yes, the games are fun, but that level of pride doesn’t just come about because sports are enjoyable to play and watch. Sports do a lot of things right when it comes to establishing a brand and creating something that people want to be part of. Sports teams have a unique ability to unite people and create a strong sense of community. Fans are passionate about their teams and will go to great lengths to show their support. This level of passion is something that cities can learn from to build their brand and foster civic pride.

At the heart of this passion is not just the team colors or logo (that’s important and we’ll get to that shortly), but it’s the shared experiences that fans have when they come together to cheer on their team. Whether it’s the thrill of a last-second victory, the camaraderie of tailgating with friends, or the shared sense of pride that comes with being part of a community that supports its team through ups and downs, these experiences create an emotional connection that runs deep.

Cities aiming to construct a robust brand must acknowledge the significance of these communal experiences, prioritizing the creation of opportunities for people to connect rather than solely focusing on logos and campaigns. This can be achieved through initiatives such as community events, the activation of public spaces to foster social interaction, and cultural programs celebrating the city’s unique character.

At CivicBrand, we’re big believers the power of these experiences and the role branding plays in bringing them to life. For instance, we designed and implemented a pedestrian plaza in Downtown Waco that quickly evolved into a center for social activity and community pride.

Regarding team colors and logos: Their specific design is actually less important than how they are used. While some designs may better represent the community, it’s crucial not to burden colors or logos with the sole responsibility of conveying a community’s essence. Often, we expect logos to encapsulate everything we feel about a subject during the design process, which is unrealistic and what leads to overly busy logos that shoehorn in every idea. Initially, a logo should hold no meaning; instead, it gradually builds significance over time, serving as a reminder of shared experiences. This process mirrors Pavlov’s dogs’ classical conditioning, where a bell sound became associated with food, showcasing the essence of branding as a conditioning mechanism. There’s nothing about a bell sound that inherently means food. However, a bell sound is a good vessel for relaying that because it’s simple and easily consistent and there’s nothing that detracts from your message. So it’s not the bell sound but rather the association with the experience.

Instead of evaluating a logo solely based on its representation of your city during the design process, it’s more beneficial to ask questions such as: Could this logo be consistently applied across various platforms and channels? Does the design convey anything contrary to our intended message? Your logo could simply be a blue dot, devoid of additional elements. However, if this blue dot is consistently utilized across all brand communications and where positive experiences occur, it will gradually come to symbolize those experiences, evolving into a source of pride.

The plaza we designed in Waco wasn’t merely a gathering space; it also boasted a distinctive visual identity that residents could share. Consequently, the plaza became the backdrop for numerous life experiences, ranging from engagement photos to senior portraits to concerts and community events. Through organic branding, the plaza provided people with the means to express their pride and share their experiences with others. These real-life moments constitute the brand experience. The branded pattern on the street served as a reminder of these experiences, akin to the bell for Pavlov’s dogs. When individuals now encounter those colors and patterns, they evoke feelings not solely due to their design brilliance, but because of the associations formed, allowing for seamless integration across mediums like street murals, websites, social media, and even homemade Christmas ornaments.

This underscores the power of branding in fostering a robust sense of community and connection. When individuals feel a deep bond with a city (team, college, or product) and enjoy positive experiences there, they are more inclined to champion it and spread the word to others.

By cultivating strong connections and offering avenues for expression, cities can forge a potent brand rooted in the experiences and emotions of its residents. Our role as cities, leaders, and marketers is to provide a platform where people can partake in memorable experiences and then simply equip them with the tools (logos, colors, campaigns, photo-ops, etc) to cherish and share those moments.


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