Up until this year, the city of Austin didn’t have a single major league professional sports team.
It’s hard to believe, considering the rich fabric and community of the Texas metropolis, its worldwide adoration, and general stature within such an athletic powerhouse of a state. So when the MLS announced that Austin would be home to its very own professional soccer team starting in the 2021 season, it was a pretty big deal.
But as exciting as this news was, the pressure was on. As Austin’s first-ever major league professional franchise, everything about this club needed to hit the mark and set the right tone for the city. Its brand identity and narrative needed to be pitch-perfect, and tapping the right team for the job was critical.
A small agency called The Butler Bros set themselves apart from the pack through their intimate connection to Austin and their unique work style. Founders Adam Butler (CEO) and Marty Butler (CCO) were born and bred in Austin, and they bring an understanding of the city and community to the table as natives that others simply couldn’t.
“I’m homegrown,” Marty tells me, “which was an important differentiator for Anthony Precourt, the Austin FC owner, who was starting the team. When they were interviewing agencies and design firms, there were certainly some larger, established firms that they were looking at.” But Precourt and Austin FC President Andy Loughnane understood their limitations as Austin outsiders themselves, with Precourt hailing from the Bay Area and Loughnane from the midwest.
At the same time, Marty and his team have always embraced the value of differing perspectives and leaned on Precourt and Loughnane’s points of view as newcomers, particularly in the discovery portion of the branding process.
“Austin is such a growing community, so we see the value in new people coming in because of what they see and what pops for them,” says Marty. “We have all of these experiences, but what gets you going? That is what we call ‘radical collaboration.’ Where we’re willing to sit at the table to work with people who are not creatives, and invite them into that dialogue, and have them share honestly. That’s what we did to get to where we got. It was very much a team effort.”
Synthesizing the ideas and outsider POVs is central to the Butler’s work and was crucial to the branding they created for Austin FC. The agency is already composed of a small and diverse group of creatives that’s 60% female. But Marty is clear-eyed about the limits of his team, and there remained a need to look outside of themselves for an even broader perspective.
With this imperative in mind, The Butler Bros have adopted the methodology of Think Wrong (from Greg Galle and John Bielenberg), a company that champions a whole new way of approaching a project. The Butler Bros now employ Think Wrong ideologies for all of their projects to disrupt conventional branding. “It’s design thinking, with the intent to disrupt and break biases, open peoples minds, and get them collaborating,” Marty explains. Central to Think Wrong is what they called “Blitzes,” where individuals from all walks of life come together in a room to problem solve.
These Think Wrong Blitzes are also invaluable tools for bonding and building trust between The Butler Bros and their clients. “If you spend a day with people, you will get to know them. You will know about their parents, about their lives, about where they went to school. There’s a ton of surface area that you can rely on later. It’s all a relationship business that we’re in. It’s humans working together, trusting each other, and being vulnerable. Creatives do that well by themselves in agencies and design firms. We just encourage everyone who may think they’re not creative to do it. Because guess what? Every person on the earth is born creative. That’s how we’re designed.”
For the Austin FC blitz, The Butler Bros hired 20 individuals with differing backgrounds, including a UT women’s soccer player, an African-born artist and soccer fanatic based in Austin, a professional soccer player, Latinx activists, and other members of the community. “It was a very dynamic experience. I think we were there for like seven hours together—no cell phones!”
“This is an input into the work,” elaborates Jeremy Spencer, the Narrative Director for the Austin FC branding. “This is before we even start designing or writing anything. So it’s really to gain empathy and define who we talk to, create ways in, and get inspiration.”
“The big thing that came out is Austin is a collection of wildly different people, and that’s what makes Austin unique,” adds Jeremy. “The blitz really crystallized that this has to be a big tent idea, that has to appeal to the Latinx community, the artist outlier misfit type of person, the traditionalist Texas sports fans. As we started to develop things, that was a guiding post.”
The first order of business for The Butler Bros after the blitz was tackling the enormous responsibility of coming up with the club’s name.
Once again, The Butler Bros looked to crowdsourcing to help identify the best moniker. “We created four different ways in with names, and shared them with the same group that was in the blitz, and then expanded that footprint to include even more Austinites to ask them what their preferences were and why, and what these names conjured for them.”
Ultimately, timelessness and class ruled the day. “The Austin FC name wasn’t even always the favorite because people were like, ‘Oh, that’s so expected.’ But it communicated the inclusivity that it was for Austin. It wasn’t just a cool, hip mascot name. It was broader than that and classic. It’s just straight up the Austin brand.”
Molding the brand narrative was a significant step in constructing the club’s overall identity and rounding out the brand system. The Butler Bros landed on “Grow The Legend” as the club’s rallying cry.
“We leaned on the narrative to provide that competitive might, that bravado, and that’s why the tone of it is ‘Grow The Legend’—it’s big, it’s bold,” says Jeremy. “It’s about growing the legend of Austin. It gets a little misinterpreted even by fans since Austin FC is brand new, but it was always meant to say the city’s legend that we represent. We didn’t come here to be this thing that was going to be legendary on its own. It was to add to the city that we love.”
Reflecting on what sets Austin apart from other Texas cities was critical to The Butler Bros in all aspects of Austin FC’s branding, especially within the crest. There’s a homogeny and predictability to the logos of other Texas professional sports teams that Austin FC wanted to avoid.
“There’s a star in every one of these logos,” Marty says as he shows me the graphic above. “The tropes are orange, blue, red, and stars. It’s very ‘Lonestar State.’ And then look at the hippie in the middle!” He continues, “We have a tree ordinance in Austin. You can’t just cut down a tree. If it’s a certain size, you have to get a special permit. If you cut it down, you could get fined. That doesn’t exist in Houston or Dallas; Austin’s a freak show. Look at the freak in the middle! It’s crazy, right?”
Two intertwined trees are an unexpected emblem for a team crest, but there is an inherent strength, comfort, and even dominance evoked from the image of a tree. “I don’t imagine people think of trees when they come to Austin, necessarily,” says Marty. “It’s a huge, important part of Austin, our beautiful oak trees that are everywhere, but it’s not necessarily the iconic thing. The thing that crystallized the tree for us was the story of the Treaty Oak, which is Austin’s most famous tree.”
The Treaty Oak is a 500-year-old oak tree, making it older than the actual city of Austin and even the state of Texas. “It’s like an ancient citizen of our city,” says Marty. “That’s one of the things we liked about it. It was here before all of this stuff.” The Treaty Oak is the last surviving member of the Council Oaks, a grove of 14 trees that served as a sacred meeting place for Native American tribes before European settlers arrived. In the 1920s, it was even voted “The Most Perfect Tree in America.”
In 1989, the Treaty Oak was tragically poisoned by a vandal, sparking city-wide outrage and a mass communal effort to come together to save it. “The whole city activated around it. They brought chicken soup, they brought messages, they brought crystals, they prayed,” Marty tells me.
“One of the things that the arborists did to save it was planting a second tree that they had started to grow from the Treaty Oak as a clipping because oak trees share their resources,” Marty continues. “A young tree can actually push its resources to an older tree.”
Against all scientific odds, the city and community saved the Treaty Oak.
“The way they saved it was such a brilliant narrative,” Marty says. “That’s why when you look at the tree in the crest, there are two trees there. It fed the narrative of a city that supports the club and vice versa.”
“Design is important, but the narrative of why is everything,” Marty concludes. “That’s what really sticks with people and inspires people.”
The backbone of what The Butler Bros accomplished with their brilliant work for Austin FC is their insistence on creative collaboration and harnessing diverse perspectives.
If Austin FC’s players can work together as a team even half as effectively as The Butler Bros can, an MLS league title is imminent.
Brand Studio: The Butler Bros
Client: Precourt Sports Ventures
CEO, Founder: Adam Butler
CCO, Founder: Marty Butler
Creative Director: Erik Enberg
Narrative Director: Jeremy Spencer
Design Lead: Barrett Fry
Designers: Steve Wolf, Lauren Dickens, Jacob Carter
Production Design: Alicia Pak, Colin Butler, Ava DeVoe
Collaboration Managers: Jake Rutherford, Justin Johnson