Our MVP Pick For Super Bowl XLVI: The Old-School Branding System

In an age of morphing logos, the NFL delivered a rigid, static branding system. But it still works, writes the Brand Union's Richard Bates.

As an undergrad in design school, back when print was king, we were taught that the practical rules of identity development were: Keep it simple enough to be effective on a business card and stationary, and the logo should always be reproducible in one color, vector art with no gradations. Then, as now, a strong creative idea was the key requirement, but today, logos—and the identities that support them—often need to work harder than they did in the pre-digital age. Now, the logo and its extended identity can take on a more dynamic role in brand storytelling by leveraging the familiarity that comes from the frequent and virtual nature of the fast-paced conversation between a brand and its consumers. Google’s ever-changing logo is an obvious and literal example, but even brands as diverse as DC Comics, Brand USA, and JCPenney have recently evolved their identities, building variation and storytelling into the system, not just for variety or complexity but to instill a dynamic sense of entertainment, energy, and lifestyle in the core brand equity—the logo.

So, when the NFL debuted their new "logo system," designed by Landor, it came as somewhat of a surprise. Having previously embraced 45 years of variation and regional customization, the NFL presented a more rigid system placing a monochromatic, chromed-out rendering of the Vince Lombardi trophy at the center of all future Super Bowl logos. They retained the equity of the Roman numerals by including them at the base and kept a hint of regional variation by allowing a small glimpse of the host stadium to peak out from behind the trophy.

When pressed—truly pressed—for a response, fans focused on the pros and cons of the Roman numerals and the obvious lack of color in the new logo. The personality seemed to have been sucked out of the Super Bowl identity. The brand seemed to have removed some of the spice from fans’ tailgate chilli-cheese nachos and left a few limp giant foam fingers. I personally don’t believe the past history of the Super Bowl logos will ever be held up as an example of great design system thinking, but I do see life and energy in both the variety of color and design gymnastics required to wrestle those Roman numerals into some type of acceptable configuration. I don’t believe tasteful and intelligent were ever requirements.

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By imposing a more rigid system on future host cities, the Super Bowl brand seems to be moving in the opposite direction from many of the brands evolving their identities in this digitally focused era. If you check out this year’s Super Bowl swag, available on the NFL shop website, you have to assume more elaborate visual identity system heroics—background graphics—will be required in the future to clearly differentiate one year’s Super Bowl T-shirt from another. Possibly the execution is a bit lackluster, but overall the strategy seems sound. Considering the Super Bowl’s fast-growing, expanding demographic, the time seems right for a clean reset, to refocus all eyes on the prize—the iconic Vince Lombardi trophy.

Yesterday, and in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, anyone with a TV or Internet connection had the chance to see the new logo in action. In its natural habitat of swirling infographics, the simple, iconic logo is strong and effective. I believe the NFL should be preparing for their touchdown dance in the Brand Bowl end zone.

[Image: David Lee/Shutterstock]

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  • steven morris

    This is a perfect example of a homogenized brand in the making. By extracting the personality from the unique Superbowl logos will also extract its memorability. The Superbowl is both a celebration of the sport and the city that the game is being played at (along with the teams that are playing) and NFL history in the making—not to mention a world class sporting event thanks to the likes of Jim Steeg (for Special Events innovator for the NFL). This is a poor decision by the NFL. It was a disappointing surprise, to say the least, that this direction was approved by the league.

  • Michael

    This really saddens me, actually. The colors and logos and uniqueness the game used to have is gone, and it's all one man's fault - Roger Goodell. His out-of-control ego has taken over this game, never more evident that selling Super Bowl tickets last year in Dallas he didn't even have. This new logo is ugly and simple and unoriginal. I personally loved each game having its own design and seeing the patches on the uniforms and on the field and around the stadium. And seeing the championship shirts with the logo afterwards. I sincerely hope enough people feel this way that a petition could be started. Pretty soon this game is going to lose fans at a rapid rate (it's already started with Goodell's ploy to get Time Warner to buy the NFL Network by making 13 Thursday Night games, which is outrageous and unnecessary and is a case of fans simply being force-fed football). Mr. Bates, I am glad you wrote this and if you have any sort of connection or access to the powers that be in the NFL (seeing as how you live in New York), I implore you to put those to use and help try and restore the originality and greatness of what is supposed to be the world's most prestigious sporting event. Thank you. 

  • abby

    My caveat - my preference is clean and simple, so I like the new logo. However, a brand must stay true to who they the previous marks you mention life, energy, color, 'design gymnastics,' and lack of taste and intelligence...maybe that was their brand! Maybe that little bit of tackiness was the personality of the Super Bowl and could combat what Chris mentions below as the rep of the 'no fun league.' The Super Bowl is a championship consumed with beer, pretzels, dogs, burgers, cheese dip, and chips while wearing jeans, t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, and tennis shoes. This is not the Kentucky Derby with mint juleps, fancy dresses, and hats. 

    I don't agree about this moving the opposite direction of logos in the digitally focused era. I think more companies are, if not fully changing the master mark, developing simpler marks so as to be easily identified in teeny digital and social media applications. 

    Agreed on the retail side...many more background graphics will be applied. And it's obviously started this year...the actual Super Bowl mark is teeny, while they've chosen a different font/graphic to hugely display on the chest. So how does that actually achieve the Super Bowl's goal of a more aligned visual brand if all retail is going to look different anyway? I guess, if in fact that was a goal of the redesign.

  • Chris

    There is a reason why the NFL is considered the "No Fun League". That title doesn't only pertain to absurd penalties for the most innocuous touchdown celebration. Like many others I like to pay close attention to what teams wear. The current state of uniforms in the NFL are boring, dull, and  . . . . formulaic. They are all modeled in the same template. The only difference is the striping patterns used. But when studied most NFL uniforms lack the flash and differentiation they once had. Further the NFL has used the same approach when a team is in need of new logo's. Most new logo's are based on an obtuse or scalene triangle. No Fun League. 

    Don't even get me started on the status of the socks in which pretty much every team wears.

  • Randy

    Someone needs to do a study over time. I predict with a fair amount of confidence this system, like any other, will evolve/be dropped/diluted (take your pick) over time as the people in charge come and go. It seems absurd to enforce a system on this "brand" event. How long before color makes an appearance? Perhaps Vegas will put a line out for that.

  • Bryan

    A caveat - I'm a traditionalist regarding this subject.

    While I agree, some previous Super Bowl logos are tacky, silly, or downright odd, and this new approach is slick and clean, I disagree with the sentiment that this solution is a triumph worthy of the Cruz Samba or the Ickey Shuffle.

    An event logo should be unique and memorable because that's what an event should be...unique and memorable. The NFL cannot package their championship event in this fashion (this is the second year they've used this logo with the exception of the stadium rendering and Roman numerals) AND sell me that "this year is going to be's going to be a one-of-a-kind experience."

    This logo program is symptomatic of a brand evolution I find disappointing.