Football clubs becoming ‘brands’ has brought many issues that exist for any brand, whether it be a car manufacturer, charity, soft drink, etc – the need to be clear about what they stand for, what defines them, what peoples experience of them might be, what differentiates them, etc. However, in our experience working with brand and football clubs there are two key issues that are, if not entirely unique then much more pronounced for football club brands.
Most brands have quite specific audiences, a key group (or ‘tribe) a brand will be trying to appeal to whether that be age range (eg Disney, Saga), wealth (Poundstretcher, Armani), or something else. This makes shaping a brand simpler, as you have a specific core audience in mind.
However, our experience working with football club brands has made it abundantly clear to us that their audience is in some ways indefinable. Let’s firstly consider age range – football clubs have fans from birth (although admittedly they have little say in the matter) to old age, and so have to appeal to all ages of dribblers (from baby bib to old age care homes) and everyone in-between.
Similarly, wealth is not an identifying factor for the audience of a football club brand. Fans might spend every spare penny they have on their season ticket or want the opulence and luxury of a five star hotel in their executive box. In our work with the Arsenal FC brand their numerous sub-brands needed to appeal to specific audiences – from the Junior Gunners (the childrens membership) to the Diamond Club (an ‘ultra-exclusive luxury suite regarded as the most prestigious destination in sport’).
Football fans come in all shapes and sizes, all ages and pocket sizes. However, even though the audience is diverse, and the ways a club will attract those different groups must vary, the brand of the club must be clear to everyone. What football club brands need to always be aware of is that, no matter which audience they are attracting they are always the same club and brand.
Football clubs engender a loyalty that other brands can only dream of. Once someone has set their heart on a club then (usually) they are committed for life, good times and bad. Imagine that once someone has chosen a soft drink in their youth that becomes the only drink that will pass their lips… ever. This is great for the football club, but what this level of commitment and loyalty creates is a sense of ‘ownership’ of the brand by its fans.
A football club may like to think that they own their brand, but there are numerous examples of club owners falling foul when trying to do something the fans didn’t approve of. For example, Assem Allam buys Hull City but decides that, in order to become a more recognisable brand they need to change their name from City to something more unique. He tries to rename the club Hull Tigers, the fans protest. Even though the club nickname is the Tigers the fans simply won’t have the name changed. The FA reject the name change request, twice. Allam might own the football club, as in the entity, but he doesn’t own the brand.
Another example is that of Cardiff City’s kit colour and badge. Cardiff City has been known as the Bluebirds since 1908, but that didn’t stop their new owner Vincent Tan from changing their kit from blue (which they had also worn since 1908) to red. He also changed their badge from featuring the bluebird to using a dragon. The plan was simple, in order to become a global brand Cardiff City needed to utilise existing references to Wales, i.e. a red dragon (it is on their flag after all). This move would be a much stronger way to tie Cardiff City to Wales. Maybe it did, but the fans weren’t happy. Fan protests again took place and in 2015 they changed back to being the Bluebirds and playing in blue. Again, the owner might own the club but he didn’t own the brand.
This list of examples could go on and on (remember the Everton badge redesign?). Whether it be club name, kit colour, or badge football club brands might get unprecedented brand loyalty, but what comes with that is a powerful sense of brand ownership by the fans.
Any football club wanting to develop their brand need to ensure that changes be approved by or co-created with the people who really ‘own’ the brand, the fans. Developing a sense of mutual trust between club and fans is central to a successful football club brand. A football club becomes a part of a fan, as some fans say their team is ‘in their blood’, so it’s not unreasonable to consider the fans as an intrinsic part of the club, and the brand.
Our football clients have included Arsenal FC, Chelsea FC, Manchester United FC, Wolverhampton Wanderers FC, Wembley, The Football League and the National Football Museum.