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Houston 1836: A Branding Blunder?

There was a great story in the New York Times last week regarding the controversy that bubbled up in the wake of the unveiling of the name of Houston''s new professional soccer team, "Houston 1836." The article, "What''s in a Brand Name? Houston Just Found Out," by Simon Romero, points to the negative reaction to the name among some of the community''s hispanic leaders.

The announcement of the name quickly elicited strong negative reactions among Latino soccer followers. Carlos Puig, the editor of Rumbo de Houston, one of the city''s Spanish-language daily newspapers, told Romero that his e-mail inbox filled with messages from readers "going crazy with the name."

Rumbo lambasted the name on its front page on the day after the announcement, describing the choice as an "own goal," a soccer term describing when a player inadvertently kicks the ball into his own goal, scoring a point for the opponent. Rumbo also questioned whether the name would attract fans among Latinos, who account for more than 40 percent of Houston''s population.

Obviously, the year 1836 has different meanings to different people. It was the year Houston was founded, but it was also the year that began a period of violence and discrimination against Mexican Americans, Mexicans and other Hispanics that some believe continues to this day.

For those outside of Houston, it''s worth noting that the city''s demographic composition is roughly 40 percent Hispanic, 30 percent African American and 30 percent caucasian. Anyone starting any kind of business would be wise to examine how to include all of the region''s ethnically diverse populations. But it''s incredible that the team''s owner, the Anschutz Entertainment Group of Los Angeles, failed to fully consider how the name would be received by the soccer-crazy fans they were hoping to lure. After all, they are basing the venture in part on the crowds of Spanish-speaking fútbol aficionados who regularly fill stadiums here to attend the matches of visiting clubs from Mexico.

One of the reasons Houston landed a Major League Soccer franchise, with Anschutz relocating the Earthquakes from San Jose, Calif., and renaming them Houston 1836, was the impressive crowds at soccer matches here in recent months. A match between Mexico and Bulgaria drew more than 35,000 fans last November, and games in Houston featuring Mexican clubs in 2004 and 2005 drew some of the largest crowds in the InterLiga tournament''s history.

Oliver Luck, the president of Houston 1836, said the name was chosen over 15 other choices, including Americans, Apollos, Buffaloes, Bulls, Eagles, Generals, Lonestars, Mustangs, Stallions and two names in Spanish, Gatos (Cats) and Toros (Bulls).

Mr. Luck said the name was the top choice among respondents in an online questionnaire about potential names. Note to businesses: incredible as it might seem, a large portion of our population still is not online, so it''s almost certain that the respondents to any online survey is not going to be representative of the region''s ethnic make-up.

Of course, no one in Houston disputes that a lot happened in Texas in 1836, including the settling of this city, the siege of the Alamo and the battle of San Jacinto, in which troops led by Sam Houston defeated Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna''s army, the concluding military event in Texas''s attempt to secede from Mexico.

I strongly recommend a trip to the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum for a terrific overview of the events that led up to that incredible series of events as well as what happened afterward to shape the character of the Lonestar State.

It will be interesting to see if this ends up being a small issue that blows over quickly or if it leads to a reassessment of the franchise name. In the meantime, it offers an important lesson for businesses entering ethnically diverse areas. Don''t insult your core customer and show yourself to be disconnected at best and callous and uncaring at worst by failing to fully consider their point of view.

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READER RESPONSE

This post comes from Bill V.:

I read your article about the Houston 1836 and found it interesting, funny really in light of today''s date. In particular today, May 5th, when the Hispanic community all across the country will be celebrating Cinco de Mayo. Here''s a date when Mexico celebrates the successful defeat of the French. Can you explain why it is okay for Hispanics to celebrate winning a war against another population group, but inappropriate for Houstonians to celebrate winning freedom from Mexico?

I love the complete ill-logic of political correctness. My French ancestors can only laugh at the whole petty thing.

Dan Keeney
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Author: Dan Keeney
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