Monday, July 28, 2014

Summer archive post: Aunt Sally and the Sounders naming contest

This piece ran in GoalWa just about two years ago now. I really like it. People disagreed with me, but I think the name was going to be Sounders all along. It worked better if we owned it.

My main takeaway from the recent Forbes blog series on the Sounders (E Pluribus Sounders) was how well-considered the move from the minors to MLS was. At every point, it seemed like the current Sounders ownership group made the right decisions, from marketing, to branding to player personnel.

Forgive me if I’m off base, but the blog series rang true to me. I really do remember things going pretty smoothly from the USL to kick-off in the MLS. Which, made me think hard about the one time it seemed like the Sounders owners were about to make a mistake: when they were deciding on the team.

In spring 2008, the club announced a web-based vote on the name of team, and that “Sounders” would not be among the choices. But, when the actual vote took place, there was a chance for fans to write in a vote. Most people wrote in “Sounders” or something close, and the rest is history.

But, why does it seem strange to me that an ownership group that seems to have done practically everything else right, might have gotten something so basic so so so wrong? I mean, Seattle Republic? Really?
Is it possible that the Sounders proposed purposefully bad names like Alliance and Republic to raise the interest (and ire) of the fan base to force the issue on the Sounders name?

This sort of proposal has some relations in the real business and real estate planning world. This sort of thing is called a straw man proposal (not straw man argument) or an Aunt Sally.

A straw man proposal is used in business settings as a rough document to kick off a discussion. Everyone is in the loop, so no one thinks the original proposal is a possible end to the discussion.

On the other hand, an Aunt Sally is disguised as a serious proposal (we want to Build a 20 story building!) when a much more reasonable goal (no really, just a 10 story building) is desired. So, you’re able to walk back the large building for a not so quite large building. A 10 story building may have been equally opposed as a 20, but its much easier to swallow than a 20.

So, in our case, the ownership really didn’t try to pull a straw man proposal (since we obviously weren’t in on it) or an Aunt Sally (since we would’ve gone for the Sounders in the first place.)

So, the real end of the false dilemma was probably to further engage and connect the fan-base in the name and the overall brand. It worked on me, I certainly remember feeling a sense of massive relief and pride when the result of the vote was announced.

The original context of the naming process seems particularly out of sync:
“The three naming options will be announced Tuesday, March 25, and were chosen through fan focus groups, internal committees and fan suggestions, but will not include Sounders.”

“I have great respect for the Sounders and the club’s history,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber. “While we should celebrate the past, we believe the MLS Seattle team should be about where we are headed tomorrow and help position the club globally.”

For one, I’m not sure how they could have conducted real focus groups on naming the team and avoided finding Sounders at the top of the heap. The end result of the process was 49 percent of all voters writing in “Sounders.”

Also, while the MLS has a bad reputation for respecting its NASL roots, it had been ten years since the San Jose club had first rebranded to its NASL-original Earthquakes. Also, by the time the Sounders started ramping up in 2008, the MLS Earthquakes 2.0 had already hit the field.

Also, since the Quakes and Sounders, both the Whitecaps and Timbers have come back with their NASL names with no discussion.

Lastly, two of the proposed names — Alliance and Republic — seem to indicate that it was more about the voting process and the fans actually choosing than anything else.

Any serious person would know that Sounders was a powerful name locally, it was unlikely to carry any bad feelings from the NASL days because the Sounders had been so well supported in those days. To me, the point of the vote was to give the fans the chance to put their own stamp on the team when the first game was still over a year away.

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