The story behind naming the Super Bowl, and why leaders don’t need to like their own branding

Jan 29, 2018

One of the most difficult aspects of marketing is putting your audience’s preferences before your own. Catering to customers’ or supporters’ tastes, even when they don’t match yours, requires empathy and humility.

In fact, there are plenty of stories in which corporate leaders hated their company’s branding or messaging, even though it was widely appealing.

Pete Rozelle found himself in a situation like this in the late 1960s. The National Football League and the American Football League had been competing leagues for years, and they decided to merge in 1966, forming the modern NFL. There was just one thing: what to call the new championship game?

Rozelle, as the new NFL’s first commissioner, had some ideas. His favorites included “The Big One” and “World Series of Football.” Eventually, he punted, and called it The AFL-NFL World Championship Game.

Meanwhile, fans, media and team owners started using their own labels. One name that arose organically was “Super Bowl.”

It made sense. The Rose Bowl and Yale Bowl made the word “bowl” synonymous with major postseason games. Because this new game combined two formerly rival leagues, it simply made sense to add “Super.”

(There’s also an odd, possibly apocryphal story that the founder of the AFL suggested the name “Super Bowl” because his kids had a toy called “Super Ball.”)

But Rozelle hated the name. He thought super was a slang term and sounded too colloquial.

In 1969, the league held a contest to rebrand the game, with entries like “Ultimate Bowl” and “Premier Bowl.”

Apparently, however, nothing could beat Super Bowl, and they begrudgingly made it official.

Long story short: leaders often struggle to dissociate their own opinions from decisions about what their audience will prefer. Acknowledging that your perspective might not be universal is a step toward more effective marketing.

This article first appeared in our weekly newsletter, Long Story Short. It was written by Lee Procida.

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