2012 was a forgettable year for the Houston Astros. The Killer B days of Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell and Derek Bell were long gone. The team’s first World Series appearance in 2005 was a fading memory. And their 55 - 107 record earned them last place in their division and the worst record in the major leagues. They didn’t know it at the time, but the next two seasons would be just as bad.
But there was hope. There always is in baseball. Their new owner, Jim Crane, was optimistic. But losing teams don’t keep the city’s attention. Even diehard fans were weighing their options, and heavily discounted tickets couldn’t fill the seats at Minute Maid Park.
There was one group that saw a different kind of potential in the Astros. The team’s marketing department knew something had to change if the team was going to become relevant again, if it was going to hold on to fans, if it was going to sell tickets. The front office preached patience; marketing preached rebranding.
The Power of a Logo
The first step was to redesign the team’s logo. The idea wasn’t new. The logo had been changed five times in the team’s history, and each was basically an update of the one that came before it. But this effort needed to be more. This logo needed to anchor a complete corporate rebranding campaign.
The logo the marketing department unveiled in 2013 reached back into the team’s iconic beginnings and recaptured the spirit of the space explorers the team was named for. It was clean, sharp, modern, respectful of the past and optimistic about the future.
A new line of branded merchandise included clothing specifically designed for men, women, children, even babies. The cap styles, including the trendy Snapback, reflected the times, not the standard fare. The Astros even invited fans to create their own merchandise. The colors and styles were as varied as the personalities of the talented players that made up the new nucleus of the team.
Connecting with the Community
New slogans had to work harder as well. They had to match the new energy and mean something to the people of Houston. In 2017, when the Astros won their first World Series title, the team slogan was Earn It, a humble, blue-collar, working-class mantra that resonated with the ethic of the city, turning fans into enthusiastic brand ambassadors all over town. Earn It gave way to Never Settle in 2018. Then 2019’s Take it Back took direct aim at the championship trophy the Boston Red Sox had unceremoniously claimed in 2018.
The overall marketing plan also included integrating the new look and new messages into the community. Now players, managers, broadcasters and staff—the public faces of the team—were out planting trees, delivering meals, picking up trash and working with nonprofits and civic groups all across the region. They were visible, participating, with the new look fully on display.
Understanding Marketing’s Role
Nobody in marketing is taking credit for the team winning the 2017 World Series or for the accomplishments of Jose Altuve, George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman. No one in marketing could have anticipated how the city would turn to a professional baseball team for hope in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.1 But the marketing department does rightfully take some credit for helping create a new culture around the team and helping bring fans back to the stadium in record numbers.2
In short (all apologies to Jose Altuve), the Astros are a perfect example of rebranding done right. Their fans are everywhere, free agents want to play here, an entire community is unified behind them and, most important, the team has a look that reflects their attitude and the high quality of their play and their organization.
Two World Series appearances in three years don’t lie.
Hat tip, marketing.
Disclaimer - The views, information, or opinions expressed in this Journal entry are solely those of Pennebaker and do not necessarily represent those of the Houston Astros or Major League Baseball.
Photos courtesy of Houston Astros Facebook, Heights Hospital for Animals, Pennebaker Staff - Nate Weston and Alyssa Oliver.
1. The Astros also donated $4 million toward Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.
2. 2018 attendance
at Minute Maid Park increased 24% over 2017.