ASU Mascot Offers A Branding Lesson For The Ages

By March 18, 2014 No Comments


Editor’s note: This article appears in the latest magazine edition of Talk Business Arkansas, which you can read here.

In 2007, Arkansas State University was forced to make a decision: fight what would almost certainly be a losing battle with the National College Athletic Association to keep their long-time Indian mascot or rebrand. Two years earlier, the NCAA executive committee adopted a new policy to prohibit NCAA colleges and universities from “displaying hostile and abusive racial/ethnic/national origin mascots, nicknames or imagery at any of the 88 NCAA championships.”

At the time, Walter Harrison, then chair of the Executive Committee and president at the University of Hartford issued a statement declaring, “Colleges and universities may adopt any mascot that they wish, as that is an institutional matter. But as a national association, we believe that mascots, nicknames or images deemed hostile or abusive in terms of race, ethnicity or national origin should not be visible at the championship events that we control.”

In practice, the ruling meant all Native American mascots were essentially banned, but for a very few exceptions.

Some at ASU believed their mascot would not fall under the new policy because of the steps taken to create what they considered a “more reverent” depiction of Native Americans, having dispatched with the former Running Joe and adopting a generic Indian family. But the NCAA did not agree.

“The estimates we got for legal fees to fight the decision were somewhere in the neighborhood of $300,000 with a low chance of success,” said Jeff Hankins, Vice President of Strategic Communications and Economic Development for the Arkansas State University system, “It didn’t make sense to pursue that option.” At the time, he was part of the committee to decide how to proceed.

The Indian mascot was retired and the search for a new mascot began. It was hard at the time for many loyal ASU alumni and fans to imagine how successful the new mascot would be and how widely it would be received.

The university decided to include as many stakeholders as possible in the decision process to increase the potential acceptance of a new mascot. Faculty, staff, alumni and students were asked to submit thoughts and ideas for the future ASU brand.

Markaham Howe, now retired, worked on the decision and rollout.

“It was the single most successful campaign I was ever a part of,” Howe said. He said by engaging the fan base on and off campus, the university was able to get buy-in from the people who would eventually be asked to embrace the decision. Some variation of a wolf was a predominant theme to all the submissions. Eventually, the Red Wolf was selected.

“It was successful from the start,” said Mark Ferguson, who runs a sports message board for ASU fans. The first football game as Red Wolves was the win over Texas A&M and the next week at home, fans were already predominantly switched over.”

Ferguson says the Red Wolves mascot “met a need,” for Arkansas State fans. The years of limbo when the Indian was seen as less inclusive, or to some offensive, created a desire for a mascot fans could embrace without reservation.

Hankins confirmed that sales of officially licensed products have soared in the past five years. Part of that he attributes to the new mascot, but also the success of Arkansas State University athletics that coincided with the change.

No one could have predicted the lightning strike of good fortune to rebrand at the same time the football program won three consecutive conference championships and made bowl appearances. By percentage increase in sales, Arkansas State is 7th in the country for merchandise sales over the past five years.

Another measure of success Hankins points to is the 66% increase in state license plates bearing the Red Wolf. The alumni association went from $18,000 in revenue to $33,000 from their cut of the plates sold. Anecdotally, the number of requests for the appearances for the new Red Wolf mascot is up significantly, though no one keeps exact numbers.

While the fan base has largely embraced the Red Wolf mascot with cheers including “Howl yes!” and a call to “Get your wolves up!” there are still a few who are not quite ready to let go of the past completely. A popular t-shirt in Jonesboro in the past few years reads, “My Indian name is Red Wolf.”

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