Minor league baseball hasn’t been the same since Jason Klein and Casey White arrived nearly two decades ago and began reshaping the industry by designing team names and logos with a flair for the outrageous. The lifelong friends from San Diego have taken their company Brandiose to new heights, working with roughly half of the sport’s teams and leading the industry that strives for family-friendly entertainment to a new level of silliness.
Brandiose has created many of minor league baseball’s top-selling (and most outrageous) brands, including the El Paso Chihuahuas, Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Omaha Storm Chasers and Richmond Flying Squirrels. Their approach has not been embraced by everyone, with some observers questioning whether teams are going too far off the beaten path, but Klein and White wouldn’t want it any other way.
What follows is my conversation with Klein on how Brandiose has evolved while changing minor league baseball, and what the future might hold for himself and White, and minor league baseball as an industry. The transcript has been edited in parts for clarity.
Your story is pretty well known within the Minor League Baseball community, beginning with landing your first client, the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx, out of college. What was that experience like and how did it shape your careers?
Being so close to Disney growing up, we loved the idea that a story transported you to another world. We took that approach of storytelling with our work and built the brand around a character named “Gem Dandy.” We didn’t really know what the Diamond Jaxx was [about], so we invented this additional story about the diamond mines in the hills of Tennessee.
The brand was great, a lot of visual elements to the story, pickaxes, the character had a handlebar mustache like the Pringles man, which had the naming rights to the park. But there are no diamond mines in the hills of Tennessee. So, I think that was the biggest lesson, that you have got to do your research. So from that point forward, we started travelling and doing on-site research for every brand we created.
How important is storytelling to bringing an identity to life, since you’re not just naming a team, you’re creating a new brand?
Story is everything. It is at the heart of everything we do. Sports is tribal. It’s my town versus your town. It’s what it means to be in my community . . . We get to tell the great stories of America and the communities and what they are about. That’s what we do. Whether it is Lehigh Valley producing the steel that built America, or Akron the rubber capital of the world, or Biloxi the original seafood capital of the world. These are all the great stories waiting to be told.
What is your process for working with a team on its identity? The names and logos that you come up with may sound irreverent and look wacky, but I figure there is a pretty well-worked method to your madness.
We pack our bags, get on a plane and head out to whatever community we’re working with. We just feel like it’s a disservice to develop a brand for a community without spending time in the place. We get out in the community, talk to fans, staff, season-ticket holders and uncover what stories we are going to be telling.
Once we hit on that narrative, we move forward with developing logos. It starts off with a shotgun approach to catch concepts to decide how we are going to tell the story of different angles and identify different primary logos or a cap logo. Then we whittle it down, add color and present a family of logos, because not every fan is going to love every mark. So we have to plan for kids, adults and everyone in between. We add a couple for the uniforms, for the character ambassador or the mascot of the team, and for the day to day aspects of the brand, from ballpark maps to kids clubs to a lot of theme night promotions and developing identities for them. So, it’s ongoing from the day we step foot in the town to today.
So it is more than just creating a look for a team? Are you also involved in ballpark promotions?
Yes. We’ve worked with about 63 minor league baseball teams this year. And we get together long before the season starts and talk about what they want to celebrate and how they want to take their brand to the next level and what is going on with the trends in the industry. And we line up a handful of ways we can take their story to the next level and get started.
You guys have obviously built up a following in the minors, but you also have your detractors, inside the game and out. How do you respond to people who say you have gone too far with team logos and names?
People always ask if it is the worst thing when someone hates what you do. No, the worst thing is if they are apathetic about the work that we create. Whether you are a baseball team or a sports team or a business, or whatever you are working on, your brand is dead [if they are apathetic]. You want people to talk about it. You want to build excitement. There are always going to be detractors, and that debate back and forth about anything is good for the brand. So ultimately the lovers always convert the haters, whether that is outside minor league baseball or inside minor league baseball, everybody comes around.
Minor League Baseball has changed over the last several decades and continues to evolve. From your perspective, how do you think the game has changed the most?
I would say that is the money that is brought into the industry and the type of ownership that is buying into the league. We all used to say that we are in the entertainment business and not the baseball business. We would say that we are focused more on the community or that we threw a party and a baseball game broke out, or that you can’t control the product on the field, so we’re not in the baseball business we’re in the entertainment business. And I think while we all used to say that and market that, there was a part of us that said, ‘Ehhh, we’re still in the baseball business.’
Now as teams are expanding and getting into the restaurant business or the brewery business or non-profit activity that is appealing, or some of the year-round campaigns that they are working on, they are embracing more that [idea of] ‘No, we are in the entertainment business and that is OK.’
Casey and I have always said that what happens between the foul lines is off limits to us. We have always loved the game. It’s funny, Jeremy Schaap from ESPN came out to the studio and was interviewing Casey and asked him, ‘How do you feel about people who think you are trying to ruin the game?’ Casey said ‘I don’t want to touch the game.’
You have all these people who want pitch clocks and you have all of these people who are trying to speed up the game. I think the game is fine as it is. If you look at Disney World, no one says you should speed up the time you have at Disney World. If anything, we should want fans to stay longer at our games . . . We’re the guys who everyone assumes are anti-purity, but we think we should leave the game as it is and find a way to keep fans there longer.
When I interviewed you several years ago, you told me that your goal is to stretch the bounds of what has been done before. Has that goal changed? Have you sufficiently stretched those bounds?
We’re always looking for ways to stretch the bounds. Whether it is the first glow-in-the-dark baseball cap in the history of baseball [for the now-defunct Casper Ghosts] or the first on-field rally cap for the Altoona Curve, we’re always looking for ways to stretch the bounds. Challenging the status quo is part of our DNA and that will never change.
Is there any name or logo — and it can remain anonymous — that you have done and look back on and say to yourself, well, maybe we went too far with that one?
I don’t think so. And the reason I say that I don’t think identities can go too far is our process is stilted in a way that safeguards against that. What I mean is that we are very upfront that after the brand launch is over, the staff has to live, eat and breathe this brand everyday. They have to build continuous gameday promotions around it. They have to promote it. There are dozens and dozens of people who have to buy into it, so for that reason we never build a brand unless we know that the staff is behind it. So, if the staff says to us, yes, no matter how unorthodox this sounds, we can keep running over and over and over again with it, then I don’t see how it’s possible to build a brand that goes too far.
Could this work, could what you do for minor league clubs work on the major league level? Could you have an expansion team named the Chihuahuas?
Absolutely. And it would be one of the most popular major league teams because everybody would be talking about it. If I ask you to write down the 30 major league baseball teams on a piece of paper right now, there are going to be one or two that you forget. You will be like, ‘Who am I missing?’ And that’s not great.
Yankees and Red Sox, their stories and brands, the power of them are at the top and they have 100 years of equity built in. But there are teams that are more modern, more historical that would be at the end of that list. And I guarantee if you had a team named the Chihuahuas, it wouldn’t be one of those last teams.
What is next for Brandiose? What is the next frontier for Brandiose to conquer?
Right now we are bringing Disney-style concession methods to the ballpark. So dog bowl nachos: If you go to El Paso Chihuahuas games, you get your nachos served in a dog bowl. We are doing a lot of mascot-based character mugs and drink cups. So we are getting more into the physical elements of the gameday experience through a partnership we have with Success Promotions to develop concession vessels if you will, like popcorn buckets. And so we are taking a huge part of the theme park experience of the entertainment industry and bringing it into minor league baseball even further.
Is it all still exciting for you? Is it still fun to go into these communities and discover stories?
Absolutely. We had an owner just over the last six months ask us if we would be interested in designing his new ballpark based on everything we have learned about themed entertainment. I told him that we are not architects. And he said ‘That is not why I would hire you guys to do this. I would be interested in having you guys design a ballpark because of your imagination.’ So, I think that is the next big frontier for us. We’re working with some theme park artists already on some group areas that are going to be fun.