The Charlotte Hornets’ Recent Rebranding: Short Term and Long Term Impact and Implications

Hugo the Hornet interacts with fans  in Charlotte
Hugo the Hornet interacting with fans in Charlotte. Source of image:

A recent article in The New York Times takes a look at the Charlotte Hornets’ most recent marketing efforts involving the team’s new (or in some ways old) mascot and a door to door approach to generating “buzz” for the beginning of the NBA season. To be more precise Charlotte’s mascot, a giant hornet named “Hugo,” along with other representatives from the team are visiting the homes of residents in the city who have basketball hoops and offering them purple (one of the team’s colors) nets as replacements for their white ones. If the residents replace their current basketball hoop’s net with the purple ones and post of a photo of it with the hashtag “#BuzzCity” to a social media platform they will be placed in the running to win tickets to games or other prizes. This marketing tactic is one of many being employed by the team to help generate excitement amongst their fans for the Charlotte basketball team’s new season and the reintroduction of the Hornet’s brand.

For those unfamiliar with the history of the Charlotte Hornets, the team was previously known as the Charlotte Bobcats. Prior to that Charlotte had a team known as the Hornets, but the team’s owner decided to move it to New Orleans in 2002, while retaining the “Hornets” name.  In the meantime, Charlotte was able to bring to the NBA a new team during an expansion of the league, the Charlotte Bobcats. At the end of 2013 the New Orleans Hornets decided to rebrand themselves the New Orleans Pelicans. The then Charlotte Bobcats were given the opportunity to take back their old name along with the history and records of the Hornet team from when they were first in Charlotte. Before moving forward with the decision, Charlotte’s management team issued an online poll with Harris Interactive to determine how residents felt about changing the team’s name back to the Hornets. The results indicated that 82 percent of those polled were either very supportive or extremely supportive of the name change.

There are many classic examples of rebranding efforts that have gone awry. A great example can be seen in Gap’s rebranding effort in 2010. The new logo lasted about a week until consumer outcries and criticisms in regard to it led the company to bring back the old logo (a brief, but interesting article about Gap’s rebrand can be found here). Charlotte’s NBA team was able to determine before moving forward with the decision to rebrand how people within the city might feel about it. For many a return to the Hornets might have seemed like a cathartic experience given the sour taste that had been left in their mouths from when the Hornet’s owner at the time decided to move the team to New Orleans back in 2002. Nostalgia may also had been a factor for some who remember a Hornet’s team that had a fair amount of success and some memorable moments during their first tenure in Charlotte. One of the commercials produced to help promote the recent rebranding effort features a clip of a significant game winning shot being made during the 1993 season by Alonzo Mourning when he was a Hornet.

So far the results of the rebranding speak for themselves. The Hornets have sold more new full-season tickets than every team in the NBA with exception to the Cleveland, according to Peter Guelli the Hornets’ chief sales and marketing officer. It makes a certain amount of sense that Cleveland would outperform Charlotte in this respect since the biggest name in the NBA (Lebron James) decided to re-sign with the team that initially drafted him years ago (another comeback story). An article in the Charlotte Observer also notes that, according to the team, 10,000 season tickets have been sold for this season, which is about 4,000 more than were sold in the year that Michael Jordan bought the team. In addition, merchandise sales have increased by 77 percent and the team has added 30 new corporate sponsors including big names such as Mercedes-Benz and McDonalds. All these signs suggest that the rebranding of the team has been very successful from a marketing standpoint. Ultimately the true test of its impact will depend on the newly branded Hornets being able to perform for their fans.

With one of the main themes of the team’s marketing communications being the idea of a comeback it will be important for the team to play well. Fans who are eager to forget many years of poor performance by the Bobcats as well as those fans who have an image of the Hornets as a successful franchise will feel most satisfied if the team performs well during this year. It was to be expected that merchandise sales would jump just by merit of bringing in a new name and all of the visual elements that come with it. The question is how much of those sales increases will be sustained as time progresses and fans become acquainted with the new Hornets?

The timing for the rebranding is hopefully right for the team. The Hornets are coming off a winning season this past year and over the offseason the organization chose to invest in acquiring new talent through free agency. A woeful season could significantly impact the marketing momentum that the organization has built up in recent months though. This is a great example of the importance of ensuring that the marketing department has a keen understanding of the internal operations of the organization and speaks honestly to them. In this case it’s a little trickier for marketing in the Hornets’ organization to gauge this, but still crucial. Another way of thinking about this is to consider what good it would be to make a claim if you’re incapable of living up to it. In the short term such a tactic might bolster sales, but over time it will be impossible to maintain any credibility with your customers and in turn those initial sales increases will quickly drop off and then some. As of the time of this post the Hornets were 4-5 so it will be interesting to see as things progress during the season.

From a marketing management perspective here are some questions to consider:

  • Do you believe that the timing was right for the Charlotte Bobcats to be rebranded the Charlotte Hornets? Why or why not?
  • Assuming that the decision to rebrand the teams as the Charlotte Hornets was a foregone conclusion would it have been possible to postpone the transition for a year or longer? What potential risks would there have been in doing so?
  • As a marketing manager for the Charlotte Hornets how would you measure the long term value of the rebranding effort? How much of the effort’s success do you believe is dependent on the Hornets winning games?