San Manuel to Yaamava’: The Art of the Rebrand

The rebranding of a world-famous Southern California resort wasn’t done lightly—and it didn’t happen overnight. Here’s how the San Manuel Casino and Resort became Yaamava’.

San Manuel to Yaamava’: The Art of the Rebrand

In September, the San Manuel Casino and Resort in Highland, California was officially rebranded as the Yaamava’ Resort & Casino at San Manuel. The name change coincided with a major expansion of the resort, operated by the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians. It added slot machines (for a total of 6,500); a high-limit room; retail shopping; and additional bars and restaurants.

The expansion continues. In December, the newly christened Yaamava’ will debut a 17-story, 432-room hotel with a pool deck, private cabanas and a spa. And next year, the resort will add a 2,800-seat entertainment venue.

The rebrand put in motion many moving parts, from new logos on hundreds of surfaces to thousands of new uniforms. It wasn’t done lightly, and took years of forethought before it was executed.

There’s a reason why rebranding of a major casino property is done so rarely. It’s a great big deal.

Yamavaa’ General Manager Peter Arceo said the rebrand “goes back a few years, to when we were planning this expansion project and what it would mean for the San Manuel Tribe. There was a discussion that maybe this was an opportunity for a new name.”

The team considered a variety of concepts.

“The tribe felt strongly about spring, rebirth and renewal, which fit into what we were actually doing. It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime things,” said Arceo.

In focus groups, the tribe tested the word “Yaamava’” (the Serrano word for “spring”).

“It rolls off the tongue,” said Arceo. “It teaches and educates people a little bit about the culture. It accomplishes a lot of different things, and the decision was made by the tribe to move forward with it.”

When the tribe broke ground on the expansion in 2018, the new name adorned a banner behind former San Manuel Chairwoman Lynn Valbuena (.).

As it turns out, the name change has met with approval from most guests—and curiosity.

“It’s very interesting to people,” Arceo noted. “They’re asking a lot of questions—not just journalists, but our guests. The tribe has also launched a magazine this year; it ties in stories the tribe wants to share with people to give insight into their culture. A lot of things are coming together this year that are bringing in that cultural aspect.”

Brand New

The logistics of changing a known brand is formidable—and the impact is unknown until the rollout.

“There’s a cross-functional team—property marketing, purchasing and shared services marketing—that formed a core group of the actual physical changeout,” said Arceo. “We have assets on property with our very extensive list of partnerships with sports teams and arenas in California and Las Vegas. We had to do an enormous change.

“Our name with the new logo was off in left field at the Dodgers game—that was a physical, not digital, sign. Signs with stadiums had to be coordinated. We told everyone we were planning to swap assets long before we did it. It was quite a task, and I have to give a lot of credit to the team, to manage the literally thousands of assets we had to change.”

Of course, the most important people are the loyal customers, many of whom have made the casino their local meeting place since it opened in 2005.

“We keep in touch with a variety of ways, such as weekly surveys that go out—if you’ve visited the property in the last seven days, we have communication with you. As part of that, we also ask if they know the name change.”

Casino branding expert Julia Carcamo, of J. Carcamo & Associates, is the author of Reel Marketing: The Art of Building A Casino Brand. She said changing a familiar name “is always going to be a big deal for any company. Casino customers build a bond with the casinos they favor—even more so with tribal casinos,” which are extensions of a community, and have more of a family feeling.

Despite that bond, said Carcamo, it’s possible to confuse or alienate a segment of the patron base through rebranding. She is reminded of her tenure as executive director of advertising and public relations at Wynn Resorts in the early 2000’s, prior to the opening of Wynn Las Vegas. The Strip resort was originally to be called Le Reve, or “The Dream,” after a Picasso owned by Steve Wynn (l.).

But at the time, “the Wynn name meant a lot and delivered more on the brand,” said Carcamo. The corporate team was also worried that people wouldn’t know how to pronounce Le Reve. So the decision was made to stick with the tried-and-true.

“When it opened in 2005 as Wynn Las Vegas, it meant something,” said Carcamo. “That’s the thing about branding—it needs to say something, and to be successful, you have to deliver on what you’re saying. We didn’t end up going with the name Le Reve for the property, but we used it for the theater and shows.”

In the case of Yaamavaa’, she said, “For quite a while, people are going to call it San Manuel, because it’s habit. That’s one of the problems with rebranding.”

“From a corporate perspective, you hear about rebranding mistakes, such as when the Gap changed its logo.”

Another notable example is when British Petroleum changed its brand name to BP, in effect removing the name petroleum from the company name to sound more ‘green.’ “Eight years later they were responsible for one of the biggest spills ever in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Almost 20 years ago, PricewaterhouseCoopers spent millions to rebrand as “Monday,” only to see that name scrapped when IBC bought the company and junked the new name.

Carcamo says it’s important to introduce the change gradually, and repeat the message again and again. “When you take a name that’s meaningful for the tribe, you do things like constantly saying the name. For that, radio and TV will be super-important, because they’ll continue to say the name and pronounce it so that people start getting used to it. They can maintain that respect for the tribe and the language.”

Medium & Message

That is the goal for the San Manuel team.

“We staged several focus groups throughout the year where they asked if they know that San Manuel went through a name change,” Arceo said. “Some did and some didn’t, and it helped us to know where to focus. One geographical area might be less aware than others.

“As part of the process, we tried to discover the best method to communicate with people. Some resonate with TV and radio, and depending on those responses, we tailor our messaging. Meantime, we get that message out there that we’re the most exciting casino in So Cal, and, we believe, in the country. And this will seep into the consciousness, they will know Yamavaa’ is an exciting casino.

“As we open the theater and hotel, we’ll emphasize that you don’t know what Yamavaa’ is until you come here. And then it’s, ‘Oh my gosh!’

Articles by Author: David Ross

David D. Ross edits the Escondido Times-Advocate and Valley Roadrunner newspapers. A freelance journalist for over 40 years, Ross is knowledgeable about San Diego's backcountry and has written on tourism in Julian, Palomar Mountain, San Diego Safari Park—and the area’s casinos. He has a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University.