Rocking a Brand-Altering Identity: The Genesis of the Caps’ ‘Rock the Red’ Campaign

Thumbnail image for Red Rocker EmmeWhat if instead of ‘Rock the Red’ the Capitals last spring had unveiled ‘Believe in Red,’ ‘Red Rage,’ or ‘The Rise of the Red’ as a marketing slogan?

Doesn’t quite carry the same ring or flair, does it?

Those branding identity alternatives were in fact variations on the red theme that the Caps’ marketing and communications pros considered last season. ‘Rock the Red’ of course ultimately was selected, and as successful branding ideas go, did it ever take hold: the phrase and what it symbolizes coalesced a city around its surging hockey team during the Caps’ miraculous run to the Southeast Division title.

The Caps sure got it right with their ‘Rock the Red’ campaign: so much so that the slogan has come to stand as a core branding concept — it’s every bit as vibrant today as it was during the opening round of last spring’s playoffs. Today it’s illuminated and emblazoned in Metro stations, on hot-selling merchandise, and a stand-out slogan across the entire spectrum of media promotions for the team. It’s shouted by Verizon Center public address announcer Wes Johnson during key moments of Caps’ home games. It’s the home crowd’s unified fashion sense.

It’s hockey in Washington.

And it’s here to stay, most likely for years.

“It is who we are now, it’s ingrained in our brand identity,” Tim McDermott, Capitals’ Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer, told me this week. “‘Rock the Red’ is symbolic of the experience at Caps’ games, symbolic of the type of game we play, symbolic of the team’s youth and an electric sense about the team,” he added.  

I was curious about the slogan’s origins, and this week McDermott was kind enough to sift through marketing team meeting notes from last season and take me back to the earliest origins of the team’s marketing ideas for the 2007-08 playoffs, which necessarily began all the way back in January.

You’ll recall that back in January, the Caps didn’t much have the look of a playoff team. Play under new coach Bruce Boudreau had improved, but there was so much Eastern Conference ground to make up. Still, the team had to prepare for a potential public relations campaign for the postseason, which would include ad buys in print, broadcast, and electronic media and newer marketing strategies such as the formation of street teams, conducting pep rallies, and having a presence on local college campuses.

The Caps’ marketing team was even thinking in terms of hockey-loving teachers in the region having their students decorate classrooms as the Caps competed in the playoffs. They were even thinking in terms of fans forming viewing parties for the team’s away games, and how a successful branding campaign could impact those. The Caps needed a branding concept that was unique to them, one that other NHL clubs didn’t already market in some fashion, but also one that was authentic in its essence.

“We were thinking in terms of the playoff gameday experience,” McDermott noted. “Balloons, banners, giveaways . . . we wanted to create a bit of a theme for the playoffs. We wanted something that fans could embrace and something germane to the Caps — something the Caps could own.”

“We wanted something fun, electric, something emblematic of cool, young players.”

The conceptual process, the Caps’ marketing pro explained, is deliberative.

“It’s the middle of the season, you sit around a room, and you’re in there for hours, and you just throw ideas around,” McDermott noted. No single meeting, and no single message task force, was going to get this done, he pointed out. The senior VP wanted not just his marketing team but the Caps’ communications pros putting their heads together on the task. 

“You want checks and balances on something creative like this,” he noted. “It was an initiative that I believed needed to be supported organization-wide, which is why so much of staff was involved,” he added.

McDermott’s message-makers addressed questions such as: How can the idea be used? How would it look as a logo? How would it look on merchandise? On TV? In the arena? In ads? Does it fit with our existing brand?

“Is it something that the Caps can truly say, and is it something that other teams would have difficulty saying?” McDermott noted.

Dozens of ideas were put forward, and McDermott next described a process in which suggested ideas were “filtered” before he and his marketing team moved forward to “market research mode.” Whittled down from dozens to a “Top Ten” of ideas, McDermott next conducted a survey, internally in the organization, to try and identify consensus favorites. 

“The bottom line is, it’s gotta be something fans want, that we think they would embrace,” he noted. “It really is more about the fans.”

Capitals staff was surveyed before the playoffs. Popular ideas were tested on computer and video screens.

I asked McDermott if he recalled an ‘Aha, that’s it!” moment during all of the slogan seeking meetings and surveys last winter. Initially he thought one staffer may have come up with ‘Rock the Red,’ but in perusing his notes and checking with staff this week, the phrase seems to have been arrived at collaboratively, organically . . . through a lot of trial and error and testing.  

I pushed McDermott to share with me a list of ideas that were left on the marketing room floor. A lot of the final choices had “Red” in them.

  • Power of Red
  • Unleash the Red
  • Red Reign
  • Rise of the Red
  • Red Rising
  • Believe in Red
  • Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of the Cup
  • Get capped up
  • Get Your Red On

“The success we’ve had with ‘Rock the Red’ is a testament to the fans — they’re the ones who made this great,” McDermott said. “The Fan Club created signs it hung at games, the fans bought the merchandise, and of course, you had that opening playoff game image against Philadelphia, that Sea of Red.”

“The beauty of our campaign is it allows us to tweak the message but retain the core message,” McDermott pointed out.

And the Caps have done just that this season.

“You want something that is yours, but something that is not based on team performance, on something that you can’t deliver on a given night.”

I suggested to McDermott that the campaign in its success, in its being embraced by so much of the city, reminded me of the “Orange Crush” theme that was associated for years with the NFL’s Denver Broncos, but McDermott rightly pointed out that that phrase was distinctly associated with the Broncos’ defense, whereas ‘Rock the Red’ envelops not only the entire Caps’ team but the fans’ experience as well.

The campaign has been so successful that the team has already begun the process of trademarking the message.

“Bottom line, the fans responded, the fans made this great,” McDermott said.

A perfect bit of branding, perfectly timed. Call it the Power of Red.

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6 Responses to Rocking a Brand-Altering Identity: The Genesis of the Caps’ ‘Rock the Red’ Campaign

  1. frets says:

    I’m always fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes with the Caps & this is some great reporting. “Rock the Red” now seems to be such a natural choice…but as you remind us, there’s much deliberation and testing that goes into any marketing campaign to find that ‘natural’ fit. The fact that it was so quickly embraced and has carried over into this season is just proof of its success.

  2. Juan-John says:

    I like Red Reign. 🙂

  3. Jessie says:

    rock the red is perfect. it makes me proud to be not just a fan of the caps, but of the fact that i was there when this awesome whirlwind of fantasy started. i was there before the slogan, and i’ll be there after, and “rock the red” perfectly describes the experience, from the beginning right til the end

  4. pucksandbooks says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful and enthusiastic replies. They speak I think to the passion the Caps were seeking to tap into last spring. I can’t tell you how many game attendees this season have mentioned to me the atmosphere now nightly characteristic of our rink.

  5. b.orr4 says:

    Of course, they could have stolen from Steven King and gone with “Redrum”. Now that would have scared the hell out of the opposition, but I doubt it would have worked well on the side of a Metrobus.

  6. As a hockey blogger and a sport management/comm studies major, this was a fascinating read and I thank McDermott for sharing how this brand campaign came about.

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