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Did you know since the NFL was founded in 1920, only 10 teams have ever officially swapped names? Now, as of February 2022, the Washington Commanders joined the league’s roster of rebrand success stories as number 11.
Curious how the Commanders came to be? Whether you’re a football fan, a professional photographer looking for inspiration, or a creative marketer researching innovative ways to use visual storytelling to reengage your audience, you’re going to want to keep reading for the inside scoop.
We asked Emilee Fails, the Commanders’ team photographer to tell us more about how her versatile creative perspective played a powerful role in rebranding the Washington Football Team to the Washington Commanders but as a true team player, she shared so much more.
She shared her philosophy on how photography impacts brand storytelling and told us how she developed different strategies to document uniforms versus the athletes’ pride, plus, the team chimed in and shared their thoughts on how they developed and executed this powerful visual content strategy to promote and support the release of the new brand.
Read the Q&A below to get an insider’s perspective on a rare professional sports team rebrand.
Rebranding Planning 101
Why rebrand a beloved football team?
On July 23rd, after a thorough review, the team announced that they would retire their name and be called “Washington Football Team” pending adoption of the new name the Washington Commanders, which was announced on February 2nd, 2022.
Through an extensive 18-month search for their new identity, they continued to listen closely to critical feedback. They even called upon their fans to help them name their new identity together.
How did your team approach the rebrand project? Rebrands always present organizations with the unique opportunity to completely reinvent themselves, but in this case, tweaking slightly and building upon a 90-year legacy is the objective.
The goal of the rebrand was to bridge the past to the present and future through both visual content and gear design. Along with developing a new brand style guide, they also developed new photography and video guidelines to give their collaborators creative freedom while also keeping their deliverables on-brand.
Emilee: “It was wild gearing up to take photos that you know are going to be historical–that will outlive us all because we’re the first football team to do a rebrand in the modern era. Knowing that we wanted the photos to be dramatic and have that ‘epic’ factor, Commanders Senior Creative Manager Mike Pristouris, got the idea to use poses from superhero posters. We were thinking about superheroes standing on top of a building looking off into the distance, exuding power and pride, things like that. It matched up so well with what we were trying to convey with the photos of players in these new uniforms – that vibe of ‘What’s ahead is about to be legendary.’ That’s also where the decision to use red lighting came in. Using the red light added to that heroic feel.”
Did you or your team create any distinct visual editing guides to differentiate the old brand from the new brand?
The approach from the start was to release guidelines and assets in phases and to update them as needed.
For the brand launch, the team was hyper-focused on creating consistency across all the content they were preparing to share with the world, whether it was their brand launch film or posts on their social channels.
“The team did a great job of organizing and communicating internally and externally. Being able to control the right amount of access to certain groups, whether it’s our libraries in Photoshelter or branding assets, has been a huge advantage in creating brand consistency from the start.”— Team Spokesperson
Ultimately, the biggest differentiator in their visual language guidebook became their studio photography. They introduced their signature red color gels which produced high contrast color photography. They also added a matte gradient map effect to create an ownable treatment that ties directly back to the matte finish on the helmets.
Emilee: “When it came to capturing the actual jerseys, I wanted to get a lot of detail in the photos. In this case that meant showing off the DC flag, the crest, and the stripes on the sleeves. There were definitely more of those [features] to consider and focus on in this project because there were so many cool, little, easy-to-miss elements of the jerseys. Take the positioning of ‘Commanders’ on the black jersey, for instance. That positioning was very intentional because it’s in the same spot over the heart that a military name would be on a uniform, so it was important to capture that. With the helmets, it was interesting, because the black has a more ‘typical’ material for an outer layer of a helmet. It’s super high gloss and super reflective, so we had to go in and Photoshop the light out of it because you could see reflections on those. The burgundy helmet, on the other hand, is matte which is really unique for the league in general. Because the matte is a lot softer and doesn’t have that shine, it was a lot easier to photograph.”
How did you use PhotoShelter to help collaborate and distribute the creative to internal and external stakeholders?
Emilee: “The element of surprise was important in our rebrand. The photos I took were kept under lock and key in a sense thanks to Photoshelter. We made a hidden folder that only a few people had access to and then access slowly expanded as reveal day got closer.”
What has been the average audience reaction to the new brand?
The new brand identity is the result of an 18-month collaborative process between fans, alumni, players, community leaders, and stakeholders across the D.C., Maryland, and Virginia (DMV) area, so they knew from the beginning that fans would have mixed reactions—and a range of fan reactions they received indeed.
They hosted a ‘Park and Party’ event for local fans and members of the media two days after the brand name reveal and that was a hit. Plus, according to Fanatics, on the day of the new brand launch, the Washington Commanders were the top-selling team overall across all sports on Fanatics with sales across 31 countries. The top four selling products on Fanatics that day were all Washington Commanders items – outselling Tom Brady’s jersey on the day following his presumed retirement announcement.
Photography As A Powerful Branding Tool
Since taking her creative curiosity seriously in high school, Emilee has been driven by her passion for showing and sharing people’s stories. After receiving encouragement from a high school digital arts teacher and positive feedback from her peers about her portraits, she hasn’t stopped snapping photos.
Can you describe a definitive moment in your career when you realized the impact photography has?
Emilee: “My junior year of college, I worked in the NHL for the Penguins in a social content part-time position where I was just solely shooting fans at the game, not any game action. This woman was holding a sign in the stands where she was asking for a kidney donor. I got a photo of the sign she was holding with her phone number on it. The Penguins tweeted it out. It went viral, and she was able to get the help she needed. That was a moment when I realized you can really impact people’s lives by taking photos. It wasn’t the best photo, I was still learning the technical skills of shooting in a dark arena, but it will always be in my portfolio because of the story behind it.”
What is it like being one of the only women on an NFL media team?
Emilee: “Don’t quote me on the numbers, but I think there’s less than 10 of us in the league full time. I won’t lie, I still get imposter syndrome, but I ground myself in the facts: I take good pictures, I work hard, I’m constantly looking to get better and I think with all that, I can’t doubt that I deserve to be here.”
What is your favorite part about working with The Commanders?
Emilee: “My favorite thing has always been getting to show the team’s personality and showing that they’re more than athletes and that they’re normal dudes with a job just like the rest of us. They have lives and emotions and feelings. It’s always been really cool getting the candid stuff of them, being the one that they know they can rely on to be there and get that photo after big moments that they’re going to be able to look back at when their career is over.”
Over the past two years, how have you developed trust with the players as the team photographer?
Emilee: “Consistency is so important. For example, I don’t have to cover practice every single day where these guys are doing much of the same thing over and over, but I do because it’s relationship building. It’s gonna start to click for them like ‘Oh, she cares. She’s the real deal. She’s not just anyone coming in trying to get that one juicy photo to do whatever with it and leave.’ So, I just try to show up, be welcoming and be that friendly face they know they can be themselves around.”
Can you describe a stand-out moment from working with this team over the past two years?
Emilee: “Last year was my first draft experience and first rookie class, the first time introducing myself to a new group of guys. I remember meeting Jamin [Commanders’ first-round pick, Jamin Davis] and his family at the airport. I followed him around for his first time in the facility, shooting him meeting coach, signing his very first contract, getting his first jersey…So to see him come that day, be shy, and watch him grow as a person through his first season and get more confident was really cool. It’s kind of crazy to think about it like this but, at one point, this [being in the NFL] was both of our dreams and now we’re like living our dreams together. It’s just really cool getting to experience that with the players.
Also, photographing our 2022 first-round draft pick was very memorable. Jahan [Dotson] is the first player ever to be drafted as a Commander. Again, it’s historic, and shooting him in this helmet with his new number – fittingly, #1 – was super cool.”
Marketing A New Brand
How do you and the Washington Commanders’ brand marketing team continue to share the story of the rebrand after the launch?
The brand team considers the past 18 months the initial launch phase, so what’s to come can only get better as they learn from this massive project’s challenges and triumphs.
Over the next two years, the team will work closely with fans to bring back traditions under a new banner–combined with new traditions fans will help to create, including bringing back the fight song and marching band!
A team spokesperson shared, “From the very beginning of our rebrand, we’ve remained committed to paying tribute to our rich history by carrying forth symbols, traditions, stories, and ideas from our team’s storied past into this next chapter. For our 90th anniversary celebration, we launched the #HTTC (Hail to the Commanders) hashtag and our “Command Legacy” brand campaign.”
Do you know any other NFL team with a marching band? Originally founded in 1937 as an all-volunteer ensemble that pioneered halftime entertainment, The Washington Commanders has one of two in the league and it’s also the oldest marching band in the history of the NFL! The team announced the marching band’s return recently, so fans can expect to see them perform a revamped arrangement of the team’s fight song on the FedEx Field during the 2022 season.
How will the Commanders continue to break through the noisiest sports marketing social media feeds to win over fans?
Here are a few tactical examples of how they already are doing just that:
- In late April 2022, they invited thousands of performers to FedEx Field for auditions to join the first-ever Washington Commanders Entertainment Team. Although the talented team is one of just a few mixed-gender teams in the NFL, they are “one of the league’s most diverse groups. It includes dancers, gymnasts, breakers, b-boys, b-girls, and Beat Ya Feet dancers.”
- The team recently launched Washington Branded, an in-house branded entertainment studio creating content based on authentic brand storytelling instead of traditional marketing methods. Their goal? Developing thoughtful ways to engage fans and build audiences beyond football.
- Announced a first-of-its-kind, student-fan influencer collaboration with Katie Feeney, a digital creator with a ‘social footprint that includes 2.2 million subscribers on YouTube, 6.8 million followers on TikTok, 870,000 on Instagram, and 825,000 on Snapchat.” Explaining the goal of this partnership, Commanders Chief Creative & Digital Officer, Will Misselbrook said, “Katie provides a youthful perspective that will reach new eyes and ears and help cultivate the next generation of fans as we enter the inaugural season.”
By breaking down barriers to build bridges through key partnerships, and by continuing to own and innovate upon the ways they visually share their brand story, the Washington Commanders have already proven that they are a talented team of multifaceted champions.
Follow the Commanders for team news, follow Emilee on Twitter for outtakes you won’t see on the main social feeds, and reach out to us (@psforbrands) if you’ve got a proud content marketing strategy story you want to share!