Rebranding the Bombers: bloody great idea or massive disaster?

News of AFL club Essendon reviewing its logo has Principals' strategy director, Charlie Rose trying to reconcile his fan status and professional branding opinion.

I’ve been a fan (and on-and-off-again member) of the Essendon Football Club (EFC) since 1993. Fellow die-hards will remember this as the fairy tale year when the Baby Bombers won the Premiership with dash, dare and youthful exuberance.

As a recent immigrant from South Africa, the Bombers were my entry point to Australian sporting culture. They opened the door for me into the conversational lifeblood of Melbourne.

With 16 premierships and club legends that have become immortals of our game, Essendon remains a powerhouse of the national competition and a major Australian brand.

So it got my attention when I read that the EFC is strongly considering changing its logo and has embarked on the long process to canvass views from members and stakeholders.

I’ll admit I’m not shocked by the reaction of fans and the thoughts of Bombers great (and my personal hero) Matthew Lloyd who said: “I’d be very disappointed if the Bomber was gone.” Logo bashing and brand change pushback is always inevitable.

Is changing the logo detracting from the great game and a waste of money? That’s a complicated question.

AFL clubs are in the self-identity business. Club allegiances get passed down from generation to generation and are essential to the personal identity of many Australians. In many ways, these are the ultimate brands because they mean something far greater than the sum of their parts.

The considerations on brand, logo or identity for football clubs are very different to other Australian organisations. Many corporates could only dream of inspiring the love that AFL members truly have for their club.

People tattoo these logos on their chests. Therefore, any proposal to change them is a decision that needs careful consideration. The drawbacks are big, but the benefits are potentially even bigger.

It’s incumbent on any responsible executive to review how their most important brand asset is performing and whether it’s fit for this new communications environment.

Brand change for the Bombers could take many forms – nickname, colour and symbol – and all seem to be on the table.

Let’s start with the nickname.

The EFC has been nicknamed the Bombers for almost 84 years – originally because of the proximity of the club to Essendon Airfield. While I wouldn’t advise a client to name themselves after a machine of war today, there’s no shortage of sporting clubs around the world whose names don’t altogether make sense or subscribe to modern tastes. Some might question the historical references behind the name of the Canberra Raiders. Not surprisingly, the London Rippers didn’t last long in Canada’s major baseball league. That’s the same for all kinds of brands. Words have a literal meaning, but names are filled with every story the brand has ever been a part of.

For the Bombers, a naming reversal of that magnitude would need a significant reason. I just can’t imagine a world where my team isn’t called The Bombers. And I don’t think the rationale is strong for it. Besides, the loss of brand equity and member goodwill just wouldn’t be worth it. Leave the name alone.

Similarly, the red and black colour combination is iconic and intrinsic to the identity of the club. If you were undertaking any change to the symbol itself, you’d be a brave and possibly reckless consultant to also advise a move away from these colours. They’re an asset you need to embrace.

That brings us to the controversial part. The noise around this has ‘packed house at the MCG’ vibes. The current logo was created way back in 1997 and today we live in a very different world today of technology, media, social norms, style and aesthetics.

Symbols change. Meaning changes. And so do logos. That’s what keeps branding agencies in business.

For those posturing around the potential for change, it’s worth noting that as recently as last year the Essendon Football Club had an alternate logo, celebrating its 150th-year anniversary with all-time membership numbers.

The Bombers’ recent nostalgic releases of 90s throwback merchandise proves there’s strong love for other incarnations of the club’s brand. If you create something that feels true to the club and fit for today, members and fans will respond.

Logo updates should be based on whether the symbol or imagery is holding a business back. If it brings the wrong connotations or isn’t aligned with future strategy. It makes sense to ensure marks are modern and digitally fit.

The recent brand updates to the Magpies (2018) and Richmond (2011) show clear precedent and a way forward for the Bombers. These are the other ‘Big Four Melbourne clubs’ with huge and passionate memberships, that have embraced the revisions to their club’s brand identity.

What both Collingwood and Richmond did was stylise their symbol in a simpler, more contemporary way, allowing it to be more effective in smaller digital media sizes and scale up on billboards and stadiums with impact.

These brands embraced the core of their identity but reimagined the symbol for a new era. Maybe it’s a coincidence that the Tigers won three premierships after launching a new logo… but the brand consultant in me can’t resist the temptation to believe it isn’t.

There’s going to be a lot of noise, but I strongly believe it’s time to make a sensible update to the logo. Not to change who we are or erase our history, but to set us up for the future. And maybe a premiership or three. Go Bombers.

Charlie Rose is a strategy director at branding agency Principals.


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