Watford’s club crest rebrand timing could be costly

Watford v Crystal Palace

As part of my journey to watch a game from every round of the FA Cup last season (2018/19) I became part of Watford’s incredible run to the final. I saw their quarter-final defeat of Crystal Palace, their dramatic comeback win against Wolves in the semi-final and their eventual capitulation at the hands of Manchester City in the showpiece final. As a result, I’m now part of their mailing list.

I received an email from the Hornets last week offering me the chance to vote on their new logo. The vote is the culmination of months of work that began when the club was basking in their historic run to Wembley. In the summer they invited would-be designers to submit entries for a new club crest. It was thought the stag’s head image didn’t quite fit with the Hornets moniker and was causing confusion in the new overseas markets the club was trying to move into.

In the last few weeks, the club had whittled the designs down to a group of finalists. The winning design would then go up against the current badge in a winner-takes-all final vote. Hornet means hornet! The chosen designs were pretty good and the reasons behind the potential change made sense. The trouble is a lot has changed for the club on the pitch in the time it has taken to reach this stage in the process.

The Hornets cup run masked a slip in their Premier League form. Now, with two Wembley appearances fading from the collective memory Watford are bottom of the Premier League without a win to their name in their first 10 games. As we’ve seen in the past timing could be crucial when trying to bring change to a sport where fan culture is famously fickle.

A brief history of crest re-brands

Football club re-brands are not unusual despite the perception that fans of the beautiful game are tribally resistant to change. To a certain extent, they happen annually with kits, programmes, and websites. As fans, we only tend to notice, and have an opinion, when it affects something we regard as sacred, like the club crest. This is where the marketing experts and the fans can come into conflict. Plenty of clubs have changed their badges in recent times with varying levels of success.

Chelsea updated their badge in 2005 shortly after Roman Abramovic took over control of the club to commemorate 100 years of the club. The Russian oligarch was keen to usher in a new era. The Londoners took inspiration from the club badge that existed between 1953 and 1986 and the new look was generally well-received. It also coincided with a new era for the club, one that has become synonymous with success.

Chelsea’s London rivals Arsenal and West Ham both also changed their badges to reflect key moments of change in their respective histories. In these two cases, it was when they moved into new stadiums. Arsenal introduced their new logo in 2002, 4 years before they moved into the Emirates during a time where they were also enjoying plenty of success. Just like their West London rivals, they focused on incorporating their history in the new design.

West Ham thoroughly consulted their fan base before their logo change when they moved from Upton Park to the London Stadium. Fans were generally in support as the castle part of the old logo would no longer be applicable following the move. Again the hammers were keen to emphasise the historical elements of their designs to appease potentially less sympathetic supporters.

One club that took a slightly different approach was Leeds United. In 2018 Leeds decided they also wanted to freshen up their look with the club’s centenary approaching. They launched a consultation with 10,000 ‘fans’. The design was a marketing concoction based on various buzzwords that surfaced in the research phase. It lacked the historical hook and the resulting badge was universally derided by fans and on-lookers alike.

Unlike some of the other examples, Leeds did not have a club changing moment to align with their change. No stadium move or take over. They were still a former powerhouse desperately scrambling to get back into the Premier League. Watford perhaps could face the same issue as they potentially release a new badge just when they are starting to struggle to hold on to their place in the Premier League.

Watford’s crest goes to the polls

The Hornets are no strangers to taking a few risks with their fan experience. In recent years they have built a brand new mobile-first website based on feedback from supporters and dramatically re-worked their social media channels to make the club more appealing to global markets. The club crest change is just the latest in a series of off-field developments.

Unfortunately, it’s the most noticeable and comes at a time where fans’ attention is likely to be focused on their battle to avoid relegation on the pitch. People will be quick to equate their struggles on the pitch to a lack of focus off it if the new badge is not well received by the fan base. Unlike Leeds, the new design does have some roots in history as Watford used a hornet on their crest during the late 1960s and early 1970s before reverting to the Red Hert (stag). They’ve also stuck to a tried a tested formula as the ‘Hornets’ nickname was also chose by the fans in 1959.

The argument behind the scenes will be that all the branding work will help to reduce the risk of a potential spell outside of English football’s top-flight by bringing in investment and new fans. It could, however, lead to potential conflict with current fans who feel their experience of watching their team struggle every week is being ignored while the club tries to flirt with new fans and markets.

Watford FC crest
Watford’s current badge faces a final vote on its future

The Athetic has today (Friday 1 November)announced that a new design has been chosen and will go up against the old crest in a final poll next week. Comments under the article by Adam Leventhal reveal a certain level of friction among the supporters.

“A complete distraction from the real important issues at our club imho.”

“If it aint broke, don’t fix it!”

“They’ve overlooked that if you’re not in the Premier League whatever badge or social media campaign you have won’t matter.”

The club seems to have covered their bases with a final vote to determine if fans prefer the chosen new design over the current badge which should mitigate any potential issues with the current state of the playing side. It could, however, be an interesting few months for the club as fans priorities once again go head-to-head with those of the people behind the scenes.