Bigger, Better, Bolder: Branding Super Bowl LI

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As the world prepares for pure inundation of all things Super Bowl LI-branded in Houston on Feb. 5, the graphic identity and guide for the 2018 game in Minneapolis sits ready to kick off on Monday, Feb. 6, the day after Houston wraps. Such is the life cycle of branding for one of the world’s largest annual sporting events.

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As Mollie Wilkie, NFL art director, says, the process for each Super Bowl branding identity starts two years out to allow for the release one year in advance of the game.

Even as fans put a focus on Houston, it creates a bit of a forward-thinking exercise for the NFL creative team. It all started with spending nearly a year researching and exploring Houston, meeting with the Super Bowl host committee and then settling on main points they wanted to spell out in the branding effort. Those points include the quote: “Texas does it bigger, but Houston does it better,” the idea of Houston as the fourth largest city brimming with opportunity and diversity and a city rooted in tradition while still growing.

The goal of the Super Bowl graphic identity asks designers to harness that energy and excitement surrounding the Houston community—from its citizens to its businesses—and then combine it with the NFL fan base and desire to capture a youthful spirit.

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The red, which plays heavily in the Super Bowl LI brand, comes from not only a direct tie to the NFL shield—the red in the branding is the exact red found in the NFL’s logo—but also as a way to celebrate energy and intensity. And with a focus on gold in last year’s 50th Super Bowl in San Jose’s Levi’s Stadium, the NFL embraced more colors this year than in previous efforts to push a youthful vibe.

Each year, the NFL creates a style guide for branding uses that govern everything from television broadcast logos, as seen on FOX this year, apparel designs and even in-city banners. While certain elements retain consistency year to year, such as the NFL shield and Vince Lombardi trophy logo, the graphics in the style guide aim to create unique aspects to offer visual triggers to create memories specific to the game.

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To offer the most flexibility for the diverse interests using Super Bowl branding, Wilkie says designers strive for both simplicity and complexity. She says while aiming to create a brand that looks outstanding for both Houston and the NFL, the style guide needs to break down the effort into simple elements that can merge together for additional complexity.

With a mountain of design and product born out of the style guide every year, what the NFL creates needs to have legs. “A critical component is figuring out how to ensure the look and feel has longevity and how to make the guide airtight, so that everybody can use it seamlessly and effectively,” Wilkie says. “Using the ‘all boats rise’ motto, the more partners who ultimately use it draft off the strengthened brand equity that we build together.”

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Each separate style guide user gets to pick pieces from the guide and create designs not only unique to their application, but also in line with the NFL’s standards. Everything must gain approval by the NFL before seeing the light of day, but by creating a variety of elements that can mix and match, the NFL offers flexibility in design while remaining consistently branded.

“The NFL Brand and Creative team strives to give our partners more flexibility, helping them to make unique items out of it and to bring a more diverse array of products into the market,” Wilkie says. “While a style guide sets our brand standards, it is conveyed to partners as a springboard for their creativity, not a ceiling. We love to see where our partners take the elements and build on them.”

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The idea of creating additional branding elements than a traditional campaign does provide more of a challenge, but it also allows designers the opportunity to create more and “that leads to positive opportunities.”

As the world of Houston’s Super Bowl LI envelopes the sports—and entertainment—world, know that every unique element of branding comes from both a style guide set in motion years ago and a place of design flexibility. And expect to see it all happen again come the day following the Super Bowl.


Learn more about branding in the online course Brand Building 101: How to Build, Manage and Market a Brand.

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