On a spring evening in eastern Pennsylvania, upon a bluff overlooking the Lehigh Valley, a carnival of baseball and pork products is at hand.
From loudspeakers, swine-like sounds reverberate. Vendors roam the stands in clothing festooned with outsized strips of bacon. And yes, there is also a baseball game going on — featuring players wearing jerseys that say, across the chest, "BaconUSA."
No matter that the decade-old Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Philadelphia Phillies' Triple-A team, are named for the pig iron that is a byproduct of the steel this region is renowned for producing. This is branding and marketing at its best.
The pugnacious strip of breakfast meat, introduced as the team's alternate identity five years ago, hardly stands alone.
Up in New England, there are yard goats. In the Deep South, there are spacebound raccoons. A wider scan of the American map reveals a menagerie of unlikely characters, from quarrelsome jumbo shrimp to menacing thunderbolts, from in-your-face rubber ducks to aggrieved prairie dogs. It's nowhere near the history-soaked dignity of the Yankees or the Dodgers, and that's the point.
Across America, a golden age of minor-league baseball branding has unfolded, bursting with exuberance and calibrated localism. And two guys from San Diego, born six days apart and best friends since kindergarten, have helped teams find the way.
"You look at our stuff, and you'll see a lot of pigs, squirrels, ducks looking to punch above their weight. These are American stories," Jason Klein says.
He and his partner, Casey White, are the 39-year-old founders of Brandiose, a California design studio that pushes minor-league baseball branding into fresh frontiers. Partnering with nearly half the approximately 160 minor-league clubs that dot the continental United States, they have spent most of their adult lives helping teams build new storylines.
The recipe goes something like this:
Take modern microbrewing's eclectic localism. Add a character-based American advertising tradition that points back to Count Chocula, the Green Giant and Messrs. Clean and Peanut. Top it off with an optimistic Disneyland sensibility that marries midcentury roadside signage with the kinetic creativity of Bill Veeck, the team owner who, in 1951, sent a 3-foot, 7-inch tall adult man up to the plate for a major-league at-bat (he walked, of course).
The resulting civic cocktail? Minor-league teams bursting with personality and verve, saturated in the culture of the communities they represent — and ready to sell you loads of quirky merch.
"It's a very exciting time for colloquial, niche and unique stories," White says. "We're accentuating stories that were lost for a long time, that people were told were stupid and they should be more cosmopolitan."
Brandiose and a minor-league club will discuss what's wanted — from some tweaks to a total rebrand or new-team launch — and set to work. Klein and White will travel to the community and immerse themselves, asking questions and trying to figure out what makes the region tick.
Possibilities will be narrowed, presentations made, naming contests sometimes held.
Minor-league ball dates to the 1800s, as does its idiosyncratic regionalism: By the dawn of the 20th century, the Wheeling Stogies were playing in West Virginia's cigar-making northern panhandle and the Grand Rapids Furniture Makers were taking the field in Michigan.
Today's version of it, which comes after years of teams styling themselves after MLB counterparts, plays to a specific notion: that minor-league baseball isn't merely the big leagues in miniature.
Because the "on-field product" — the players — are mostly just passing through en route to the majors (or in the other direction), it's hard to market personalities. So teams tend to emphasize the off-the-field experience.
"We have no control of the team, no control of the players," says Jim Pfander, president of the Fast Forward Sports Group, which owns the Akron RubberDucks and the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. "They get called up and there's nothing you can do about it."
Both teams — formerly the Akron Aeros and the Jacksonville Suns — enlisted Brandiose to help reboot what they considered unfocused identities.
For Akron, whose history is intertwined with the rubber industry, "a tough, gritty duck that's really got that blue-collar ethos to it" was an ideal choice for both adults and kids.
In Jacksonville, White and Klein learned that lots of the East Coast's shrimp passes through the Port of Jacksonville, and that the community saw itself as a "little big city." The oxymoronic Jumbo Shrimp were born.
"They had been the Suns forever. But by the end of the [first] season, people were leaving with armloads of gear," Pfander says. More saliently, attendance jumped nearly 29 percent in Jacksonville the season after the rebrand; for Akron, it was 27 percent.