Identity Shift

Rebranding is all the rage, as evidenced by a team called the Cheesesteaks. (via Cheryl Pursell)

Rebranding is all the rage, as evidenced by a team called the Cheesesteaks. (via Cheryl Pursell)

Quick. Name the minor league baseball team in Fresno.

If you said Grizzlies, you’re only half right. The team is the Tacos every Tuesday home game of the season for–you guessed it–its Taco Tuesdays promotion. The team wears Taco hats, Taco jerseys, Taco everything for a promotion that began in 2015 to celebrate the annual Taco Truck Throwdown at Chukchansi Park.

That event was so successful on so many levels–marketing, merchandise sales, general buzz–that the Tacos are a regular thing now, and a number of other teams are doing temporary rebrands like it. This month, for instance, the Reading Fightin Phils, Double-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies, announced that for its 16th-annual morning game on Aug. 7 the team will become the Whoopie Pies. Then, it’s back to being the Fightins again.

Welcome to the next bobblehead. The temporary rebrand is the promotion of the moment for the minor leagues.

Michael Ventola, the Fightin Phils’ Director of Public/Media Relations & Radio Broadcaster, said in his silky play-by-play baritone that the Whoopie Pies idea fits in with the team’s year-long America’s Classic Ballpark theme, saluting the 50-year history of FirstEnergy Stadium.

“There were some other options we came up with, but we had done some research and knew the whoopie pie is a classic landmark here in this area,” he said.

For those who don’t know what a whoopie pie is, you won’t be disappointed when you try one. To summarize the What’s Cooking America definition, a Whoopie Pie is a thick layer of shortening-based frosting sandwiched between two cake-like chocolate cookies. Some of the oldest recipes come from the Amish kitchens of Lancaster County, just southeast of Reading.

The bigger motive for the Fightin Phils to try the temporary rebrand is to enjoy the same kind of success the Tacos have had. The rebrand gave the team priceless national exposure in unexpected ways. The fast food chain Taco Bell, for instance, offered the people of Fresno free tacos if the team made the Tacos name permanent.

In Bowling Green, Ky., Hot Rods Assistant General Manager Eric Leach wasn’t expecting to hear from New Era after its Bootlegger rebrand last June, but he did.

“That was the craziest offshoot of Bootleggers Night,” said Leach. “We’d just ordered flex-fit hats for the players and the team store, but New Era had a national retailer who wanted to carry the fitted version and needed our authorization. I said fine, as long as you send me a sample. That national retailer has since sold out of our fitted hats.”

That was enough to encourage Bowling Greens to order the more expensive fitted 5950 New Era caps this time around. Cha-ching!

Ventola said the Reading staff was probably most influenced by the Phillies affiliate just to the north, the triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs.

The IronPigs are most famous for their bacon caps, a clever spin on the team name that seizes on America’s devotion to cured pork. Temporarily rebranding themselves as the Cheesesteaks for their June 10 game against the Durham Bulls last year wasn’t much of a stretch.

Jon Schaeffer, Vice President, Media/Communications at Lehigh Valley, was one of the people in the room for the brainstorm session that gave us the Lehigh Valley Cheesesteaks.

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“We started with a blank canvas,” said Schaeffer. “Nothing was off the table. What came out of that meeting was the idea of further strengthening our affiliation with the Phillies and having a Philadelphia Night.”

Why rename the team Cheesesteaks? Because bacon, obviously.

“Bacon lit a fire under us,” said Schaeffer. “[The Cheesesteaks rebrand] was a progression from what we did with with the bacon logo, which brought a lot of attention to our brand on a national level in a crowded marketplace.”

Bacon also moved a lot of caps and T-shirts for the IronPigs.

“I haven’t been involved in a more successful launch of a rebrand in my baseball career,” said Schaeffer.

He said the team ordered about 1,000 fitted bacon caps and sold them all the first day the team listed them on its online store.

“We also filled thousands of orders for bacon fitted hats in the immediate aftermath of the launch,” said Schaeffer. “We didn’t have nearly enough inventory on hand initially. It was pretty wild.”

Leach was just as surprised by consumer demand for merchandise when the Hot Rods announced its one-game rebrand as the Bootleggers for its game on July 16. The idea earned the franchise a MiLBY.

Leach said the team released the idea with its promotions calendar last February, and fans immediately zeroed in on Bootlegger night. The team allowed fans to pre-order merchandise. Like Lehigh Valley and its bacon caps, the Hot Rods sold out of everything single Bootlegger item it had ordered.

“Things died down a little after the season started, which gave us a time gap we needed to reorder what we needed,” said Leach.

It didn’t matter.

“We sold out of all our merchandise at the game except for one shirt and six hats,” he said.

Leach said the Bootlegger rebrand stemmed from Kentucky’s reputation for bourbon. It is home to more than 35 bourbon distillers, and the state’s Bourbon Trail is one of its most popular tourist attractions. Playing up the moonshine angle was smart, too. Boutique distilleries specializing in a legal version of the beverage have popped up all over the country. Moonshine is enjoying a zeitgeist moment.

Leach said there was risk, however. A lynchpin of the MiLB brand is family-friendly entertainment. The Bootlegger concept certainly is not for kids. The giveaway last year was a mason jar mug. Fans could enjoy moonshine tastings on the concourse.

“We also worked with our concession company to design some custom drinks,” said Leach. “They were hesitant about ordering too much moonshine, but we sold out by the third inning. That game ended up being our second-highest attended game for the season.”

Needless to say, the Bootleggers are back on the promotional schedule this year, slated for their July 22 game against the Peoria Chiefs. Bowling Green will have the same hats and logo, a bearded bootlegger astride a barrel of moonshine. But they will have new jerseys, which, like last year, will be auctioned off for charity after the game.

Many of these temporary rebrands follow a pattern, playing off food and drink in one way or another. On July 16, the Boise Hawks did a throwback night in which they became the Fruit Pickers, the name of the 1904 Pacific international League team in Boise. The Scranton-Wilkes Barre Railriders, Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees, became the Pierogies on August 26.

Other teams that have used the “What If” angle, digging into old lists of suggestions from name-the-team contests to find a candidate. The El Paso Chihuahuas did that, picking Desert Gators for its June 10 game last year. The Midland Rockhounds did it, too, becoming the Millionaires for three games last August.

Rockhounds Assistant General Manager Jamie Richardson said they were encouraged by Fresno and Lehigh Valley. Unfortunately, the Permian Basin region isn’t famous for any particular food, so the Rockhounds found entrants from the name-the-team contest in 1998, when it had switched affiliations from the Los Angeles Angels to Oakland Athletics. The Midland team had been known as the Angels.

“We did lot of things in the community last year that tied in with the Millionaires, like partnering with our United Way here,” said Richardson. “That set of games was their kick off for their annual campaign. Our jersey auction proceeds went to the United Way, and we did a money machine, where people had to pay to get in there and grab as many dollar bills as they could.”

In the end, the Rockhounds raised more than $6,000 for United Way, and in that regard Richardson counts the rebrand as a success. As for marketing value and merchandise sales, however, the weekend fell short of what the Rockhounds were hoping for.

“There was a little confusion over the name, but people liked the idea,” said Richardson. “Overall, fans wanted to make sure we were going back to the Rockhounds. Some people really embraced it, and others weren’t sure about it.”

The team sold several Millionaires shirt designs and a couple of different caps, and Richardson said about 80 percent of it sold at the three Millionaires games.

“I still see people wearing the hats and T-shirts around town,” he said.

But Richardson also said the hype wasn’t big enough to justify doing a “What If?” rebrand every year, proving that temporary rebrands aren’t for everyone.

The San Jose Giants, Single-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, are one of the most active promoters in all of MiLB. Last year, the team wore 13 different one-off jerseys with themes ranging from Luau Night to Relay for Life to Christmas in July. But the front office there isn’t sure a temporary rebrand is right for their market. Not yet, at least.

“It is on our radar,” said Juliana Paoli, Senior Vice President of Communications & Chief Marketing Officer for San Jose. “But this year for us is all about celebrating our history and where we’ve been.”

Paoli also said that a closer-than-usual link to the big league team makes a temporary rebrand tougher. The San Jose club not only shares a name with the big league Giants, the latter also has a majority ownership stake in the affiliate. That’s why San Jose, which used to have a black-and-white color scheme, reintroduced orange to the mix.

All that said, Paoli admitted that as a creative mind in minor league baseball, she would relish the chance to do a temporary rebrand in San Jose. So would the rest of the staff.

“I’ve thought if we could start over how much fun it would it be,” she said. “I love that process. But at the same time, we have such history with the Giants and our roots in San Jose, and it’s really important for our organization to celebrate that history.”

The challenge for teams that already have reaped the success of rebrands and are doing them again is keeping the promotion relevant and buzz-worthy. Fresno has managed to do it by unveiling new Tacos cap and uniform concepts and, this year, also announcing its purchase of a taco emoji. Leach and the Hot Rods are not only introducing a new Bootleggers jersey this year, they’re also brewing (distilling?) a creative social media campaign.

(Courtesy of the Fresno Tacos)

(Courtesy of the Fresno Tacos)

Schaeffer said it’s all good, as long as teams start promoting early and often. Few teams have been better at it than Lehigh Valley, which created a provincial buzz last year by letting fans vote for the “right” way to order cheesesteak–“wit” or “witout” onions, as the vernacular goes.

Philly natives are nothing if not passionate about their city and everything that goes with it (even the Eagles!). The campaign not only got plenty of responses, it also created a whole new set of T-shirts for the IronPigs to sell–one set with the #TeamWit hashtag, the other with #TeamWitout. Not surprisingly, the Pigs got a ton of online orders for the hashtag shirts from Philadelphia, which is just a little over an hour south of where Lehigh Valley plays in Allentown.

“We’re always looking to create something that our fans want to be associated with, regardless of what it is,” said Schaeffer. “This is our continual responsibility. When you do something and have success with it, it just empowers you to continue down that road.”

What’s the next stop on that road? Schaeffer demurred, hinting only that the IronPigs have something new and exciting up their sleeves. (Note to readers: Last year, the IronPigs made the Cheesesteaks announcement in late March.)

The challenge for teams doing a rebrand for the first time is making sure it still stands out in the wake of all the other great concepts that came before it. Ventola said so far, so good for the Reading Whoopie Pies.

“Multimedia outlets have picked it up, and fans have taken a positive approach,” he said. “We already have a ton of pre-sale for merchandise. Darren Rovell from ESPN made a statement saying it’s already the top thing coming out of minor league baseball this year. We have from now until Aug. 7 to keep the buzz going.”

If the Tacos and Bootleggers are any indication, that shouldn’t be a problem.


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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