A baseball branding bonanza, and 2 guys helping it happen
ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — On a spring evening in eastern Pennsylvania, upon a bluff overlooking the Lehigh Valley, a carnival of baseball and pork products is at hand.
From loudspeakers, swine-like sounds reverberate. Vendors roam the stands in clothing festooned with outsized strips of bacon. And yes, there is also a baseball game going on — featuring players wearing jerseys that say, across the chest, "BaconUSA."
No matter that the decade-old Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Philadelphia Phillies' Triple-A team, are named for the pig iron that is a byproduct of the steel this region is renowned for producing. This is branding and marketing at its best.
The pugnacious strip of breakfast meat, introduced as the team's alternate identity five years ago, hardly stands alone.
Up in New England, there are yard goats. In the Deep South, there are spacebound raccoons. A wider scan of the American map reveals a menagerie of unlikely characters, from quarrelsome jumbo shrimp to menacing thunderbolts, from in-your-face rubber ducks to aggrieved prairie dogs. It's nowhere near the history-soaked dignity of the Yankees or the Dodgers, and that's the point.
Across America, a golden age of minor league baseball branding has unfolded, bursting with exuberance and calibrated localism. And two guys from San Diego, born six days apart and best friends since kindergarten, have helped teams find the way.
"You look at our stuff, and you'll see a lot of pigs, squirrels, ducks looking to punch above their weight. These are American stories," Jason Klein says.
He and his partner, Casey White, are the 39-year-old founders of Brandiose, a California design studio that pushes minor league baseball branding into fresh frontiers. Partnering with nearly half the approximately 160 minor league clubs that dot the continental United States, they have spent most of their adult lives helping teams build new storylines.
The recipe goes something like this:
Take modern microbrewing's eclectic localism. Add a character-based American advertising tradition that points back to Count Chocula, the Green Giant and Messrs. Clean and Peanut. Top it off with an optimistic Disneyland sensibility that marries midcentury roadside signage with the kinetic creativity of Bill Veeck, the team owner who, in 1951, sent a 3-foot, 7-inch tall adult man up to the plate for a major league at-bat (he walked, of course).
The resulting civic cocktail? Minor league teams bursting with personality and verve, saturated in the culture of the communities they represent — and ready to sell you loads of quirky merch.
"It's a very exciting time for colloquial, niche and unique stories," White says. "We're accentuating stories that were lost for a long time, that people were told were stupid and they should be more cosmopolitan."
Brandiose and a minor league club will discuss what's wanted — from some tweaks to a total rebrand or new-team launch — and set to work. Klein and White will travel to the community and immerse themselves, asking questions and trying to figure out what makes the region tick.
Possibilities will be narrowed, presentations made, naming contests sometimes held. But if Brandiose is involved, it's likely a team won't be steered toward the safe choice. They embrace the counterintuitive — like the IronPigs, with whom they have been involved since 2008, when the team became the metallic, truculent hogs they are today.
"We got skewered in the media, the fan base: 'This is the worst name ever. We're never coming to a game,'" says Chuck Domino, who was running the IronPigs then and is now chief executive manager of the Richmond Flying Squirrels.
"Within a couple months," he says, "we had grandfathers wearing plastic pig noses to games."
Or consider the Rocket City Trash Pandas.
When the BayBears of Mobile, Alabama, the Los Angeles Angels' Double-A team, came under new ownership and moved 350 miles north to the Huntsville area for 2020, they brought in Brandiose. "Moon Possums" and "Comet Jockeys" emerged as contenders, but despite trepidations about the word "trash," the Trash Pandas — slang for raccoons — prevailed.
Why? Because a scrappy raccoon reaching for the stars resonated in the Huntsville-area community, with its deep aerospace heritage. So a scavenger in a trash-can spacecraft it became.
Says Klein: "Raccoons break locks, get into things. What if a raccoon created a rocket ship? What would it look like? It'd be created out of trash! And that metaphorically speaks to these engineers: 'I don't know how we're going to do this. We gotta get people from here to the moon!'"
The team did $500,000 business in Trash Pandas merchandise in the 30 days after the October unveiling, Klein says.
Particularly appealing to fans are teams' "alternate" identities — a swag-sales play, sure, but also an opportunity to dig deeper into the community. One expression of that: Copa de Diversion, in which teams temporarily deploy names and logos designed to resonate with Latino/Hispanic fans. This year, 72 minor league clubs participated.
Often a team will express its alternate identity through local food, from Rochester, New York's "garbage plates" to asparagus in Stockton, California. Thus did the IronPigs one summer switch meats temporarily, rebranding themselves as the Cheesesteaks, an ode to the fans of their major league team 60 miles southeast.
Like the best of such gambits, it calibrated the dance of local flavor and national interest perfectly.
"We had orders from all 50 states in 24 hours," says Kurt Landes, the team's president and general manager. "You want to do things from a local standpoint, and that's important to us. But sometimes there's a small twist that makes things go viral."
Minor league ball dates to the 1800s, as does its idiosyncratic regionalism: By the dawn of the 20th century, the Wheeling Stogies were playing in West Virginia's cigar-making northern panhandle and the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers were taking the field in Michigan.
Today's version of it, which comes after years of teams styling themselves after MLB counterparts, plays to a specific notion: that minor league baseball isn't merely the big leagues in miniature.
Because the "on-field product" — the players — are mostly just passing through en route to the majors (or in the other direction), it's hard to market personalities. So teams tend to emphasize the off-the-field experience.
"We have no control of the team, no control of the players," says Jim Pfander, president of the Fast Forward Sports Group, which owns the Akron RubberDucks and the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. "They get called up and there's nothing you can do about it."
Both teams — formerly the Akron Aeros and the Jacksonville Suns — enlisted Brandiose to help reboot what they considered unfocused identities.
For Akron, whose history is intertwined with the rubber industry, "a tough, gritty duck that's really got that blue-collar ethos to it" was an ideal choice for both adults and kids.
In Jacksonville, White and Klein learned that lots of the East Coast's shrimp passes through the Port of Jacksonville, and that the community saw itself as a "little big city." The oxymoronic Jumbo Shrimp were born.
"They had been the Suns forever. But by the end of the (first) season, people were leaving with armloads of gear," Pfander says. More saliently, attendance jumped nearly 29 percent in Jacksonville the season after the rebrand; for Akron, it was 27 percent.
A more subtle example of brand tweaking came from Brandiose's work with the Spokane minor league team, known for 116 years as the Indians. At the outset, Klein recalls, Brandiose was asked to follow "one rule — stay away from the Native American stuff."
Instead, they did the opposite. They all went to meet with the Spokane Tribe of Indians, for whom the team was originally named. The two groups learned about each other and agreed to incorporate tribal icons and the tribe's fading language, Salish, into the team's narrative.
Today, one jersey spells out "Spokane" in Salish; the word "Indians" is gone. Signs in both English and Salish dot the ballpark, and the tribe's leaders are stakeholders in how the team frames its message.
"We said, 'What's important to you?'" says Otto Klein, the team's senior vice president. "A lot of minor league teams are realizing that we don't have to throw a dart against a wall and see where it sticks. We can look at our own community and find the gems that make us special."
There is a saying in minor league baseball circles, often attributed to Chuck Domino: "We're not in the baseball business. We're in the circus business." But many people think of a circus as chaos, when in fact it is, as Domino says, a choreographed extravaganza.
It is business. It is mythmaking, and in particular that "farm team" brand of it that speaks to the American desire for baseball to have come from the heartland, from the small towns and tinier cities. Most of all, it is that curious collision of nostalgia and capitalism and quirky carnival-barkerism that helped build America, rewritten for the 21st century.
"Minor league ball has always had this aura, accurate or not, of a more innocent time, a more innocent approach to the game," says Paul Lukas, whose blog, UniWatch, has showcased his expertise in athletic uniforms and consumer culture for nearly two decades. "I do enjoy the embrace of local culture at a time when so many things are homogenized. . There is still stubborn regionalism. We learn about these places through these teams."
Baseball today is under threat by glitzier, faster-moving, entirely personality-driven sports that are something minor league ball will never be. But as teams and Brandiose have proven, they can lean into the exact opposite aesthetic.
"When you put on a minor league baseball hat," Klein says, "it's the story of your town and the story of what it means to be an American."
Overstating things? Perhaps a bit. But in a landscape of trash pandas and rubber ducks and flying squirrels and sod poodles, would you really expect anything less?
Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, writes frequently about American culture. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonyted.