Lions and Tigers and Bears, Goodbye

For many minor league teams, thinking outside the box is a severe understatement.

For many minor league teams, thinking outside the box is a severe understatement.

For Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp general manager Harold Craw, every day was like Christmas this fall.

“We had boxes stacked up at our front door three times a day,” he said.

The team had just made one of the most surprising rebrand announcements in minor league baseball in a long while. Jacksonville had abandoned a team name it had since 1962.

But even in a sport that reveres history as much as baseball does, it didn’t matter much. The people of Jacksonville were generally excited about the Jumbo Shrimp. So was the front office. Craw and his team tore into every new box to get a look at the latest batch of apparel with the new logos and colors. It was, Craw admitted, pretty fun.

Jacksonville is one of four newly-branded teams (so far) for 2017. The first was announced Oct. 27, when the High-A Lynchburg Hillcats released three new logos. (Seriously, what team has just one anymore?) Gone is the cross-eyed feline face. The team will wear a more menacing, contemporary kitty in sleeker blues and greens.

A day after Jacksonville’s Jumbo Shrimp unveiling on Nov. 2., the erstwhile Double-A Binghamton Mets announced their change to the Rumble Ponies, a nod to the city’s heritage as a producer of carousel animals. That got some Twitter blowback, but the biggest outcry came on Nov. 15, when New Orleans announced its new name, the Baby Cakes.

That’s not a typo. The Baby Cakes name represents king cakes, Mardi Gras confections iced in purple, green and gold and baked with a tiny baby figurine inside. Which is why the team’s new logo includes the baby. To address the philosophical “why?” of this move, here’s Cookie Rojas, senior vice president and general manager, from the team’s Nov. 15 release:

We wanted to create a name and a brand that allowed the heart of this city to shine through it. While we take our responsibility to provide affordable family entertainment very seriously, we also want to embrace the fun which permeates through New Orleans. We will continue to create a festive atmosphere with great partners in a clean, immaculate environment where you can bring your family.”

The social media firestorm was swift and, naturally, mean-spirited. (The linked article includes relatively G-rated responses. You can Google the really rude stuff on your own.) Naysayers who take that survey at the bottom of the New Orleans Times-Picayune story will be among the thousands who disapprove versus the hundreds who like the new name.

Craw has good news for Rojas and the Baby Cakes, though. The Jumbo Shrimp got its fair share of negative responses after that name change, too.

“At first, the reaction was what you’d expect,” he said. “When something has been the same for so long, any change causes people to get upset. But in about a month the climate changed tremendously.”

Craw recalled a recent Saturday when he stopped by the office to grab some files. The Baseball Grounds at Jacksonville isn’t in a heavily trafficked part of town on the weekends, unless the Jaguars are playing at adjacent EverBank Field (and even then it’s not very crowded). Craw had to stick around for an hour to help field phone calls about new merchandise and ring up fans who walked in to buy new gear.

The team didn’t even have its gift shop remodeled yet. All fans had to choose from was a modest selection of hats and T-shirts in a makeshift kiosk by the reception desk. That was enough, though.

And on another weekend, when the Jaguars were playing at home, Craw said he watched fans walking to their cars after the game stop and take selfies in front of the Jumbo Shrimp logo on a door at the ballpark.

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“People were actually chanting, ‘Jumbo Shrimp, Jumbo Shrimp!’ as they passed by,” he said.

Lynchburg, Jacksonville and Binghamton are hoping for a similar response. So are the Florida Fire Frogs, Buies Creek Astros and Down East Wood Ducks, three entirely new affiliated teams, each with its own new logos and color schemes. All of them, the new teams and the rebrands, were created by a single firm.

San Diego-based Brandiose was started by a couple of childhood pals who began by reimagining high school logos while they were in college together.

Now, they are the tastemakers of minor league baseball.

Jason Klein and Casey White started their design and marketing agency in 2000 as Plan B Marketing. The duo became plan A for minor league rebrands after they submitted the winning idea for a complete facelift of the Double-A West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx, now known as the Jackson Generals.

“We did most of our research on Google, and it never quite was as authentic as it could have been,” said Klein.

It was good enough to get his and White’s foot in the door, though, and today Brandiose approaches minor league rebrands a lot differently.

“The first thing we do is pack our bags and immerse ourselves in the community the team belongs to,” said Klein. “We travel to every city we work with and spend a lot of time with fans, sponsors, front office people and season ticket holders to uncover the hometown flavor.”

The goal is to find a community namesake they can build a compelling and unique story around.

“Once we decide what that story is, we come back with a shotgun approach, creating dozens of sketches that we go through over the course of the project,” Klein explains. “We ask ourselves which sketches are the genesis of a greater story we can tell about a community. We whittle it down, add color and then bring to life the mascot and characters that will tell that story.”

Uniforms are designed. Logos are put on cap designs. Even the little paper trays hot dogs are served on get the Brandiose treatment, as they did with the incredibly successful El Paso Chihuahuas rebrand in 2014. The team had spent the prior two seasons in Tucson sharing the name with its parent club, the San Diego Padres.

The key to success, said Klein, is having a completely clear head going into a new project.

“We pride ourselves on the fact that we don’t have any preconceived ideas before we set foot in the communities,” Klein said. “We have a meticulous process where we ask questions to uncover the stories. We get deep down to the untold stories people may not be aware of.”

Sometimes they can be pretty weird. In Lynchburg, for instance, Thomas Jefferson supposedly ate the first tomato in North America. At the time, tomatoes, known as “love apples” back then, were thought to be poisonous.

“We started going down paths exploring how the love apple story could be part of the brand,” said Klein. “We tried some ideas but felt like the community wanted to remain the Hillcats. It’d feel a little forced to incorporate [the love apple story line].”

Which brings us to the Baby Cakes. New Orleans certainly had no ties to the name “Zephyrs,” which followed the team from Denver in 1993. But Baby Cakes? Where did that come from?

“When we talked with the community, people spoke about how much New Orleans was a festival and party town and how those celebrations were the way the community comes together and celebrates life in New Orleans,” Klein said. “Mardi Gras, of course, is the festival of all festivals.”

Klein and his team wanted to put a different spin on that story.

“In talking about the fun and some of the goofiness of minor league baseball, people kept telling us the story of the king cake and the cake babies inside,” said Klein. “If you get the baby, then you have to host the party next year. No one wants the slice with the baby and have to host the next party, but it’s a fun tradition.”

From there, he and the Brandiose staff made the jump to the “rebirth” of the New Orleans franchise.

“We thought, ‘What if we told the story of the baby stuck in the cake?’” said Klein. “That seemed fun. We took it to a level of talking about maybe calling the ballpark ‘the crib’ and telling the story from the perspective of the baby fighting its way out of the cake.”

Hence, the angry baby logo on a couple of the new New Orleans caps.

“‘Menacing’ baby is what we’re going for,” corrected Klein.

Mission accomplished.

Klein points out that names like Baby Cakes and Jumbo Shrimp and Fire Frogs are nothing new in baseball. He ties the work Brandiose does today to the history of the game at the grassroots level.

“We’re really carrying on a branding tradition that dates back to the Civil War,” he said,

Klein mentioned a team that formed in Wheeling, W.V., in the late 19th century. Wheeling, he said, was known at the time as a center for cigar production.

“Naturally, when baseball came to town, you had the Wheeling Stogies playing the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers,” he said. “They were the lifeblood of their communities with names reflecting what those towns were known for. We’re just carrying that torch.”

Brandiose is taking it to a new level. Perhaps as a reflection of our culinary-crazy society today, food is a trend the agency has taken advantage of.

“Food is doing well as a design theme in apparel in general,” said Klein. “We started with Mr. Celery [for the high-A Wilmington Blue Rocks]. Then there was the bacon hat in Lehigh Valley. A lot of clubs are adopting identities for one game, and it’s a celebration of that locally known food.”

The most prominent of these is the Fresno Grizzlies’ “Tacos” identity, which it introduced two years ago in conjunction of that city’s Taco Truck Throwdown at Chukchansi Park. The Taco Bell chain offered to buy everyone in Fresno a taco if the team changed permanently. Instead, the Grizzlies wore Tacos caps and uniforms for its regular “Taco Tuesdays” promotion last season.

Merchandise sales form a powerful motive for identity changes, temporary or permanent. Fresno moves a lot of Tacos merchandise every year. In Jacksonville, Craw said that over Thanksgiving weekend, between 50 and 70 people went out of their way to come down to the ballpark and buy Jumbo Shrimp gear. Online sales have been steadily strong.

“I was surprised that our Jumbo Shrimp flags have been so popular,” he said. “We have pennants, too, and you’d think we’d sell more of those. But people love the flags around here.”

Among the three Jumbo Shrimp logos — the shrimp in a “J” shape, a shrimp bursting from an ice bucket and a shrimp clutching the shape of Florida — the last is the most popular. The takeaway? The name change has already been a good move, even if the “Suns” name had so much history in town.

“‘Suns’ was not necessarily a name they could really own,” said Klein. “You have the Phoenix Suns and Hagerstown Suns, for instance. Plus, the sun shines everywhere, not just in Jacksonville. So what was the story we could tell that was unique to the city and take the family fun entertainment concept to next level?”

That leads into a larger discussion about team nicknames in general. Are you a fan of classic names and logos that represent ferocious animals, soldiers, cowboys and other manly stuff? Too bad. Those names may never again be in vogue in minor league baseball–and possibly in sports, in general.

“When you hear a name, it’s an advertisement for the product you’re selling,” said Klein. “If you’re selling family fun and entertainment, you want a name that sounds like that. That’s the goal. If anything, names are becoming more authentic to the product teams are selling.”

“There’s precedent for what we’re doing with branding,” he said. “You have the Toledo Mud Hens. You have the Hickory Crawdads. This is part of minor league naseball’s history.”

And now, thanks to Brandiose, it’s an integral part of its future.


Chris Gigley is a freelance writer who has written for a number of Major League team publications, as well as Baseball America and ESPN the Magazine. Follow him on Instagram @cgigley and Twitter @cgigley.
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Mike
Guest
Mike

The Baby Cakes name represents everything that is good and wholesome in sports – and a good change

like boys wearing pink and girls paying with trucks

congrats on being fun!

Marc Schneider
Guest
Marc Schneider

Really??

Animals aren’t good and wholesome?

To each their own, I guess.

Logic
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Logic

I really hope this comment is sarcastic.

Kevin
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Kevin

I live in Jacksonville. I will continue to attend games because I like baseball but any shirt or cap I wear to a game will be emblazoned with the name “Suns.” Just because a nickname and logo are new doesn’t mean they are an improvement. “Jumbo Shrimp” is idiotic and cartoonish and a lot of people in this city agree with me.

God
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God

+1

mando3b
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mando3b
While some of the new team names are clever, and some of the new logos are colorful and fun, ‘way too many of them are just plain juvenile. How would you like to be a professional and have to wear that stupid cartoon chihuahua on your cap? Or that childish “Baby Cake” logo on your jersey? (The New Orleans Zephyrs once had the coolest uniforms in all of baseball. Look ’em up: they brought them to Louisiana from Denver.) Then came the inevitable cartoon on the cap, and now they’ve plummeted all the way to the bottom . . .… Read more »
bucdaddy
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bucdaddy
“Are you a fan of classic names and logos that represent ferocious animals … Too bad. Those names may never again be in vogue in minor league baseball …” Well, our West Virginia Black Bears are going into just their third season, so maybe ferocious animals aren’t quite dead yet (the black bear is the state mammal). I thought “Black Bears” was boring, actually (I was angling for Stillers, representing the state’s moonshine heritage and, perhaps, touching off a trademark war with a certain NFL team just to the north), but now I see things could have been a lot… Read more »
Tom Merten
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Tom Merten

I have lived in Jacksonville for over 40 years and would have preferred keeping it the Suns. If a change were necessary, I would even prefer the “Tars” which immediately predated the Suns. Apparently our new owner could not leave well enough alone and felt a need to change an iconic component of the franchise.

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