Another Branding Nightmare: Big Ten “Legends” and “Leaders” Panned

For the sake of full disclosure, both authors are graduates of Purdue University, a member of the Big Ten.  The Big Ten has had more than ten teams for over a decade, since 1990 to be precise.  When it added Nebraska at team number 12, it announced that two divisions would be formed and the teams in each division.  This makes sense, big conference split in order to hold very lucrative championship games.  But the announcement did not include the names of the divisions.  Instead, the stories notes possible names were being studied and would be announced at a later date.  That date was Dec. 13, 2010 and will not be a positive date in the history of Big Ten sports because people have reacted negatively to the division names:  “Leader” and “Legend.”

This latest branding boomerang was created by Pentagram, the consulting firm hired by the Big Ten to selected what was hoped to be positive division names.  Here is how Pentagram was described in the Big Ten announcement:

“Pentagram is a distinguished international design consultancy with offices in New York, London, Austin and Berlin. Founded in 1972, the firm has a unique multi-disciplinary approach: its 17 partners are generalists, and their practice is wide-ranging. At any one time, projects are likely to involve the design of identities, environmental graphics, exhibitions, products, packaging, publications, and digital applications. Recent sports related projects include graphic programs for the New York Jets, the FIFA World Cup, the Arizona Cardinals, and Princeton University”

The announcement included a new logo but the negative reaction was for the names.  Here is how the Big Ten explained the names:

“The conference also announced today that its football divisions, starting with the 2011 season, will be ‘Legends’ and ‘Leaders.’ A breakdown of the divisions is listed below:

LEGENDS: Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern

LEADERS: Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin

“’Legends’ is a nod to our history and to the people associated with our schools who are widely recognized as legends – student-athletes, coaches, alumni and faculty. ‘Leaders’ looks to the future as we remain committed to fostering leaders, the student-athletes who are encouraged to lead in their own way for the rest of their lives, in their families, in their communities and in their chosen professions,” said Delany. ‘We’re proud of our many legends and even prouder of our member institutions that develop future leaders every day.’”

People did not embrace names as intended.  As branding problems go, they emerge and echo in social media.  Here are some sample Tweets about the division names:

* Leaders and Legends are the names of conference rooms at an airport Marriott.

* Nebraska just heard new division names and is trying to see if it can return to Big 12 North.

* Legends and Leaders? Really? What was the second choice — Boring and Also Boring?

* Legends and Leaders. The Big Ten goes into next season with 2 “L”s on its record (sounds about right).

* We are officially the cheesiest conference in NCAA football!!!!!

* What has Indiana football ever done to be categorized as a Leader?

* Unofficially gauging reaction to the #BigTen division names/logos announcement on Twitter: 99% negative, 1% league employees.

* Was ‘X’ and ‘O’ that bad?

* So who will be the first one to write/announce, “Wisconsin, the Leaders leader…” Is it too late for the Big Ten to get its money back?

* I think I’d be happier if the divisions were named ‘Meat’ & ‘Potatoes.’ #bigten

* If Big Ten was looking for a logo that looks like it was designed by Atari, they got it right!

The Big Ten has heard the comments.  Jim Delany, the commissioner of the Big Ten, said in a radio interview on WGN AM-720 in Chicago on December 16 that they are aware of the name mocking and may make changes.  Delany said:  “It’s humbling, to say the least, because we’re trying to build fan bases, not push them away,” Delany said of the uproar caused by the new division names. “I was surprised. I’ve been around this business a long time, and it’s one of the more surprising things.”

But why still Big Ten when there are 12 school?  Answer is again branding.  That is the brand the schools and their alumni are attached too and is used by the very lucrative Big Ten Network. 

Questions to Consider:

1.  How can organization and its consulting firm be so out of touch with stakeholder reactions to a brand name?

2.  What viable options does Jim Delany have?  Which option would you recommend and why?

3.  What problems does the Big Ten face if it does not make changes to the Division names?

4.  How does this case illustrate the power of social media?  What exactly is that power?

5.  What might the Big Ten have done differently to avoid this situation?

6.  Would you consider this situation a crisis?  Why or why not?


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