The first mention of a Chicago Fire rebrand came back in June of 2018 when COO John Urban mentioned in an interview that the team was “going to be doing some work on the brand, refreshing the brand and identity.”
Since then, the club gave general, somewhat vague updates that work on a re-brand continued. That re-brand has finally come. And the change is drastic.
The logo is entirely new and the Fire’s official team name has changed as well, albeit slightly. Officially, Chicago Fire Soccer Club now goes by Chicago Fire Football Club. According to the team’s press release, the change “reflects a long-term vision for the club as Chicago’s global ambassador to the world’s game.”
Changing from SC to FC is subtle. Ditching the Florian Cross-based badge the club has had since its inception is not.
The new logo features a mirrored icon which the release describes as “flames inverted to become a crown.” The Great Chicago Fire is still evoked in the logo with the gold crown supposedly rising from the red ashes.
“As a Chicagoan, it was important to me that our new brand identity reflect the power of our city’s origin,” Fire owner Joe Mansueto said. “I’ve always loved the Chicago Fire name. I think of the people who rolled up their sleeves and committed to rebuild what would become a world-class city, one that my family and I love so much. The new badge including the Fire Crown represents that spirit.”
After more than 18 months of research in the form of “consultation, focus groups and surveys with fans, partners, staff and MLS,” this is the Fire’s new identity. The design comes from creative agency Doubleday & Cartwright, which has offices in Brooklyn and Los Angeles and has done branding work with MLS expansion side Inter Miami CF as well as the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets.
The release notes that future jersey designs will be announced later.
How did we get here?
Since word of the re-brand came out, speculation ran rampant on what could change. Team president and general manager Nelson Rodriguez never denied that the re-brand was happening, but what was going to be involved in that process remained unclear.
Would the name change? What about the colors? Would the badge change completely or just get a minor tweak? On May 8, Rodriguez made it sound like the club hadn’t decided on the answers to those questions yet. All he knew was the status quo wouldn’t remain.
“Something has to change,” Rodriguez said. “The badge can’t stay the exact same. Even if it’s something subtle or simple, we have to distinguish ourselves as a sporting club and not be confused with just the TV show or a local fire department.”
Change has been frequent in MLS’ still young history. Re-brands have been commonplace, whether in the form of a full-on name change (Sporting Kansas City, New York Red Bulls, FC Dallas) or simply a logo or color change.
Only New England had an older primary logo in MLS. The Revolution, an original MLS team, still have their original logo. D.C. United, another MLS original, has gone through a pair of notable modifications, but has maintained the same color scheme and the club’s eagle remains prominent in the crest.
The desire for change and a clean slate hasn’t been rare in MLS. In the Fire’s case, failing to be a consistent winner has been far more damaging to the brand than a 22-year-old logo. The Fire have made the playoffs twice in the last 10 seasons and have zero playoff wins since 2009.
“I think we have lost relevance,” Rodriguez said on May 8. “Not winning hurts us in that regard, but I also think the actual badge, even though our full name is Chicago Fire Soccer Club everybody writes and says us as Chicago Fire, which is the exact name of the show. Our badge looks too much like almost any fire department’s badge. Those are personal opinions. My personal opinion won’t carry the day. Input from fans, input from the league, input from design professionals, of course our ownership will have a say.”
As far as the league’s input, commissioner Don Garber told Yahoo’s Doug McIntyre similar on July 30.
“I don’t have a strong preference,” Garber said. “I’m going to leave that to ownership. They’ve been doing research and spending time with outside branding experts to come up with a good long-term solution, one that’s going to be driven by research and data and less by emotion.”
The comment about emotion hints at the coming fervor from the fan base that the club’s only logo has been discarded. When talking about the brand research as it was happening, Rodriguez said on July 17 that they got all kinds of different responses.
“It’s been interesting, the range of answers that we’ve been getting,” Rodriguez said. “We’ve focused on asking about the current name, the current logo, our current colors, our current uniform and even the meaning of the name and what among those things are really important to people, what among those things are they more open to changing. The answer that has had near unanimity, I would say like 90 percent, is everybody just wants us to represent all of Chicago and not be limited to a particular geographic area or thinking that way. That’s been the most unifying answer.
“Beyond that, you have die-hards who want everything to stay the same, you have people who say I still don’t understand why we’re named after a disaster. You have others who say bring back the fire truck and get rid of this whole association with fire fighters all together.”
The initial response from hardcore fans was mostly negative when a grainy image of the new logo first leaked on social media. Whether that feeling will soften as people get used to it over time remains to be seen.
This change comes in the same season that the team is moving back to Soldier Field after 14 seasons in Bridgeview. It would appear the Fire are looking for a fresh start in multiple ways in search of new fans while hoping the current ones will remain.
Peter Wilt, the team’s first president and general manager, wrote an impassioned letter on July 24 to save the Fire name and brand. The name remains, but the brand has been changed. Wilt called the move back to Soldier Field “understandable.” His feelings were not as positive regarding a brand change.
— peter wilt (@PeterWilt1) July 24, 2019
“The change of brand identity however will only serve to sever, or at a minimum obscure, the past and provide the perception of a fresh start,” Wilt wrote.
When the patent filing for the new Fire logo was discovered, Wilt tweeted “There’s a cloud over the city today.”
There's a cloud over the city today. pic.twitter.com/YRNjoZOfqf
— peter wilt (@PeterWilt1) November 20, 2019
Wilt has been involved in numerous start-up clubs in the Midwest since he left the Fire in 2005, including the Chicago Red Stars, Indy Eleven and mostly recently Forward Madison FC. He has been involved in creating the branding at all of those clubs.
He told Pro Soccer USA on Aug. 1 what a re-brand accomplishes and risks.
“I think it whitewashes anything that happened in the past, for better and worse,” Wilt said. “I think it takes away association with any issues, negative problems that teams have had in the past to kind of distance themselves from those negative aspects of the team, but also it distances the team from any positive associations with the brand.”
The Fire were successful in the team’s early years with an MLS Cup and US Open Cup double in the team’s inaugural season in 1998. A Supporters’ Shield in 2003, three more Open Cup titles and two more MLS Cup appearances followed by 2006. Three straight conference finals appearances from 2007-2009 continued some level of success.
The well has gone dry since. Has the losing of the past 10 years erased any good will of the success of the first 12 years?
“It’s a way to distance the current caretakers of the team from the pain of the last 10 years,” Wilt said of the Fire’s re-brand. “It dissociates them from the losing, the community disengagement of the last 10 years and there may be a value to that. To stopping the association to that.
“If that’s what’s needed to disassociate themselves from the last 10 years, there’s a logic to that, but nothing will be gained if all that is changed is the brand. Obviously improved community engagement and performance on the field will need to go hand-in-hand with that brand change in order to have any positive effect. Even then it will come at the price of losing the association of the connection to the original brand.”
Wilt lays out what they risked and what they can gain. It’s now on the Fire to deliver a winning product after returning to the stadium in a new logo with altered colors. The Fire front office has raised the stakes for itself in many ways for the next few years.