Sports Teams Connect with Fans Through Secondary Logos

The Atlanta Hawks call him Pac-Man. Yes, him. That is how much this secondary logo means to the NBA team and its chief creative officer and senior vice president of marketing Peter Sorckoff. They refer to the logo as an actual entity.


“Pac-Man” — Atlanta Hawks secondary logo

It proves fitting, however, since the Hawks spent 12 months and had over 1.7 million online conversations about their brand to determine what fans felt about their team. What they found? Fans loved the nostalgic days of the team’s past success, past stars (Dominique Wilkins, for example) and tied the team’s brand identity at the time to that love.

“Frankly, fans had romanticized this era,” Sorckoff tells HOW. “There was a mark that very clearly represented that era. There seemed to be a real strength in that and yearning to revisit that time in franchise history. There was so much strength there, the emphasis was how to build more emotional connectedness with the fan base.”

Pac-Man returned. And he’s well loved.

That often represents the case with a secondary logo in sports, a mark that gives franchises the opportunity to tie to nostalgia, grab a more simplistic part of an identity or play with trend-setting looks.

“They came about as a simpler mark that would look good on the court, merchandise, website and doesn’t have to tell the whole story,” Tom O’Grady, founder of the NBA’s creative services in 1990 and now a designer based in Chicago, tells HOW.

In sports, the primary logo has a tendency to get a bit heavy handed. With the need to convey a city, a nickname and a sport all in one mark, there’s room to extend the brand identity with something that has more iconic power with a second logo. A logo that has a simple life.

Todd Radom, a New York based logo designer who has created marks and identities for everything from professional teams to Super Bowls, tells HOW he likens having a secondary logo as a piece of a Swiss Army knife. “The primary logo is the knife part,” he says. “The secondary logo is that really cool screwdriver or corkscrew. It helps make a brand a brand. A single logo can not do that.”

Teams will often—as the Hawks did—reach back into their visual past to tweak a mark that connects to a fan base, Radom says. Other times, though, the secondary logo is simply a clearer way to tell a story. In baseball you might see this as an interlocking letters signifying a city name, a logo that became a de facto secondary. Secondary logos don’t tell as rich a story, but the simple application makes them in vogue for fans. Plus, they still have stories surrounding them—both Radom and O’Grady complimented the Knicks’ subway token secondary as an example.


Knicks’ subway token

O’Grady says the rise of secondary logos started in sports around the time he helped introduce them in the early 1990s. Following a licensing explosion of sports as fashion, sports logos went from the owner’s daughter drawing concepts to professionals designing brands.

In the NBA, O’Grady started using secondary logos to live on a lip of a basketball short, on the floor near the 3-point line. “It supported the primary logo and supported the team brand, but wasn’t so heavy-handed,” he says.

Radom says he looks for secondary marks to be simpler, literally more iconic and primarily derived from the primary mark. O’Grady may not agree it has to derive from the primary, but does agree that it needs to have an iconic graphic and be able to stand on its own.

He points to the NHL for his, using the Blackhawks as an example of a team that uses a crossed tomahawk as a secondary mark, separate from the headdress primary. “This has been the perfect application of a great primary and a secondary mark that really looks nothing like the primary, but fits together as part of the whole package,” he says.


Blackhawks secondary logo

As merchandising started to play a larger role in sports, brands such as Nike, Adidas and Under Armour entered the fray and the craze has caught on.

Teams with history dip back into the way back past. Teams with limited history can still grab a retro-feeling mark. But new teams, they have to find something that fits with a trend or build a sub brand. O’Grady uses the Toronto Raptors as an example. With a running raptor and words as the primary, the team opted for a claw mark as a secondary.


Raptors secondary logo

Sometimes, though, secondary marks become too popular for their own good, becoming more appealing to fans and merchandisers and forcing the primary to take a seat on the bench. Or too many secondary, tertiary or more logos in the knife can lead to marketplace confusion.

There was no confusion, in Atlanta, though. Sorckoff knew what the fans wanted.

“Yeah, honestly, there was a lot of trepidation around it,” he says. “If we screwed it up, we were screwing with something people really, really loved. I can’t even tell you how many variants we went through.”

After some minor tweaks to modernize the 1970s-era logo—the evolved version gives more aggression to the bird—the Hawks have fully embraced the logo, even putting it at center court.

With the popularity of secondary marks, the lower cost of producing and trademarking them and the emotional ties they make with fans, know that tired-looking primary marks have been put on notice. The rise of the secondary logo in sports isn’t slowing any time soon. Just ask the Hawks’ Pac-Man.

Tim Newcomb writes for Sports Illustrated and covers sports for HOW Design. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.

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