Timothy Dewhirst is an associate professor in the College of Business and Economics, University of Guelph.
The Super Bowl occasionally features a coincidental clash of brands on the field.
Nationalistic fervour was on full display for Super Bowl XXXIX as the Patriots faced the Eagles, amid America's post-9/11 patriotic surge. And the Packers and Steelers exemplified industrial brands competing against one another for Super Bowl XLV, pointing to a blue-collar ethos soon after the economic downturn.
Perhaps this year's matchup between the Broncos and Panthers is not such a coincidence, given that nearly half the National Football League's 32 teams use animals for branding purposes.
The Denver Broncos made their debut in 1960 and the team logo was modified in 1997 to depict a more intimidating and aggressive-looking animal, with illuminated and raging eyes.
A horse generally represents courage, loyalty, speed, endurance, strength and power. In particular, a bronco invokes excitement, a wild or untame horse that habitually bucks.
Bronco is derived from Spanish. In Mexican usage, the word describes a horse and also signifies "rough." The term has been culturally recycled and reworked for the purposes of cowboy lingo, much like chaps, buckaroo and lariat. Cowboys, rodeos and the American West are regarded as powerful symbols of rugged masculinity and heroism.
Denver's opponent, the Carolina Panthers, made their debut in 1995. The team's name was chosen by owner Jerry Richardson, a former NFL player and co-founder of the Hardee's restaurant chain.
The team is represented by a snarling black panther. For some, this branding might bring the Black Panther Party to mind. That association may offer different meaning from person to person, but many will read football ideals into it: machoism, aggressiveness, intimidation, violence. The team's slogan is "Keep pounding."
Carolina has also modified its logo, in 2012, for a more contemporary and aggressive look. The panther has a cleaner, three-dimensional representation that enhances its use for digital communication. And it appears larger and closer, its attack more imminent.
Interestingly, the animals in both teams' logos are decapitated from their bodies, like hunting trophies.
Sports teams often adopt names and symbols with tough, fierce, fearless, menacing and relentless qualities. Such identifiers seem particularly applicable to the NFL, given the game's spirit.
But brand positioning is also considered paramount – common strategic thinking revolves around differentiating product offerings from those of competitors and developing a unique selling point. And creating a distinctive brand identity in sports can be an imposing challenge, given the number of professional and collegiate teams that already exist.
The Carolina Panthers have a similarly identified rival in the Jacksonville Jaguars, which also entered the NFL as an expansion franchise in 1995. And there's an NHL team known as the Florida Panthers.
Broncos against Colts. Bengals in opposition to Lions and Bears. Given most people's knowledge of the animal kingdom, the contrast seems insufficient for most consumers to discern a difference in ferociousness.
Brands are also differentiated on their perceived quality, and in the sports context, this largely translates to the ability to win.
Denver is playing in the Super Bowl for a record-matching eighth time, whereas this is Carolina's second championship game in the team's young history.
With more than 110 million television viewers expected on Sunday, both teams will gain a high degree of social visibility. Victory will add further strength to the meaning and value of one franchise's brand.