I know, I know. I can’t seem to shut up about the brilliant podcast 99% Invisible from the very talented Roman Mars and friends. This week’s edition is about, of all things, baseball uniforms. And while the show (produced this time by the also-very-talented Jesse Thorn) is hilarious, insightful and entertaining, it contains a fascinating observation about brands.


Photo by JoeInQueens (Wikimedia Commons)

Paul Lukas is the founder of a website called Uni-watch that obsesses over sports aesthetics. He observes that even if we have strong brand loyalty to, say, Cheerios, we expect a certain quality level. If they change the taste or ship stale Cheerios regularly, we’ll switch. Maybe not the first time, but if it’s consistently bad, we’re outta there.

But if I am a Mets fan, regardless of whether they win, lose, change their roster, have an off season, blow a pennant race, whatever, I am consistently going to be loyal to the Mets. If suddenly 25 guys who were wearing Yankees uniforms last week show up in Mets uniforms this week, guess who I’m gonna root for?

This is nuts.

But it’s real.

There is no brand as strong as a sports team’s brand. Nothing inspires passionate support, unwavering loyalty, unconditional love, like a team uniform. Ultimately, as Jerry Seinfeld so eloquently states to David Letterman, it’s all about the clothes. We’re rooting for laundry.

How does a brand compel that kind of intense attachment? What is it about us that makes us so strongly identify with a logo and an outfit? And how can other brands hope to come close?

Perhaps the answer (as Seth Godin would no doubt agree) is in our need to belong to a tribe. We all hunger to be part of some sort of group where we share a common view of the world. Whether that group is Mets fans or skeptics, rednecks, philosophers, design aficionados or sports uniform geeks. We seek to identify with something larger than ourselves that other people like us find value in, agree with, and will put their asses on the line for in some way or another.

So what?

So creating an opportunity for “fans” of any brand to identify each other through a common visual signifier is a great way to build groups and cement a level of loyalty. That signifier could be a logo, sure, but it could also be the design of a product. In fact, much of what design does is convey those kinds of messages, and serve as an anchor for our association with them. Though being beautiful or elegant can help to differentiate a brand, it’s less about being pretty, and more about being different and identifiable.

Look at how Prius created a weird-looking car that instantly told eco-conscious consumers that there were others around who felt like they did. Suddenly Prius owners became a tribe — and the car took over the market. A Macbook Air is a silent rallying cry that says to other fanboys “I give a damn about design and cool technology” or “I’m creative”. The “Don’t Tread on Me” flag says to other Tea Partiers, “I think government sucks — just like you do”.

Giving people a focal point around which they can unite — something unique that calls up your brand’s “Why” — is the whole idea. Like a uniform, your name, your logo and your product come to embody something much larger than they do inherently. That larger thing is your brand. And that’s a force not to be taken lightly. Ask any Mets fan.