Branding and the beautiful game

Monday 26 January 2015 by Jamie Vigrass

I love sport. I watch it. I play it. I go to shout at it. Rugby, motor racing, baseball, ice hockey. I even got into darts over Christmas, what with the world championships featuring heavily on our screens. Who knew?

Like a large percentage of the UK population though, my real passion lies with football (or “soccer” to our American friends). I’ve not met many people in this country who don’t at least follow a football team. Most have unwavering loyalty to a particular side, regardless of how they perform over the years. If your team is not Chelsea, Man United or Arsenal, this can be testing.

Case in point: I’m a Fulham fan. I always have been. My parents are and my grandparents were, as were my wife’s. My kids were born Fulham fans. It wasn’t negotiable.

“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it's much more serious than that.”

Bill Shankly

Football clubs are businesses and brands with clear identities, characters and behaviours. And our relationships with brands can be fickle. I eat Weetabix for breakfast and wear Adidas footwear, but if those companies did anything to change my opinion of them, like sourcing ingredients unethically or providing poor quality, I’d change.

Our loyalty to a football club, however, is different. Our devotion transcends any success or failure on the pitch. And we make a lot of noise. Feedback is instant, honest, often contradictory, often unfounded and often inappropriate. If it’s not picked up at the stadium on match days there’s plenty to go around on social media, before, during and after a game. As lifelong supporters and season ticket-holders, we feel that we own a bit of the club and we have a say. After all, we’ll be there longer than most owners, managers, coaches and players. What more could a brand want?

And yet, halfway through this 2014/15 season, I find myself reflecting on so many examples of our clubs choosing not to listen when making a decision, only to make a costly and often damaging U-turn later. As fans, we all want success. This is why we welcome new multi-millionaire owners and the influx of cash they bring into our game. But only to a point: no amount of success is worth sacrificing what makes our clubs special. There are some core brand elements that, for me, football clubs – and businesses – must handle with care.

1. Community

“Support your local team.” That’s what the “purists” say. Walk the same route to the stadium that your father did, and his father before him. But what if your club moves? What if the walk becomes a step too far?

It happens more and more frequently in modern day football as clubs try to fit more fans into state-of-the-art stadiums. In 2006, Arsenal left Highbury, its home for 93 years, for the purpose-built, sponsor-named Emirates Stadium. It was a path trodden by current Premier League champions Manchester City a few years earlier when it swapped the 80-year old Maine Road for the Etihad Stadium.

These were both business decisions designed to further success on and off the pitch. But the stadiums were kept in the local area and the fabric of the clubs didn’t change. Basically, it worked. When Wimbledon FC relocated nearly 70 miles north to Milton Keynes in 2002, however, it was a move that ripped the football club apart.

Almost immediately Wimbledon’s fans stopped attending games, lamenting the “death” of their club. Many of them ended up following spin-off club AFC Wimbledon which was founded the same year. As this new club worked its way up the league, Wimbledon FC quickly rebranded to MK Dons, yet oddly still clung to the old club’s history, including its famous FA Cup win in 1988. A tug-of-war over the original Wimbledon’s identity followed, before MK Dons relinquished its claim in 2006.

More than a decade since its formation, AFC Wimbledon has risen from the bottom of the football pyramid to just one league below MK Dons – and the two teams have now met twice in cup games, with AFC triumphing in the most recent tie.

Away from football, brands have an unwritten responsibility to contribute to their local community. Supermarket chain Morrisons is a good example of this. The firm educates local school children about where food comes from and how to grow their own produce through its “Let's Grow” programme and has close relationships with local farmers across the UK, which provide the meat it sells in its stores. Giving back to your community in this way creates a virtuous circle between a brand and its partners and customers.

AFC Wimbledon players celebrate promotion to the Football League, nine years after the club was formed. AFC Wimbledon players celebrate promotion to the Football League, nine years after the club was formed.

2. Identity

This month, Vincent Tan, owner of Cardiff City Football Club, announced that the “Bluebirds” would return to playing in their traditional blue strip after two years of playing in red. The outpouring of relief from the club’s fanbase was palpable – two years of petitions, protests and travelling to games in their traditional blue shirts had paid off.

Cardiff City owner Tan (centre) has relented to fan pressure, with the club returning to its traditional blue strip (left). Cardiff City owner Tan (centre) has relented to fan pressure, with the club returning to its traditional blue strip (left).

Malaysian businessman Tan introduced the red strip in 2012 in an attempt to boost the brand's appeal in “international markets”. The decision included a rebrand of Cardiff’s badge to feature a red dragon, instead of the traditional bluebird. In the fans’ eyes, Tan had destroyed the club’s identity – and they voted with their feet. A little more than 4,000 turned up to the last match before Tan’s U-turn, despite Cardiff regularly selling out its 26,000-seater stadium in the past. When fans did attend, they did so in full blue regalia – sending a message that no corporate decision would change the way they viewed their club.

Left: Cardiff City’s old badge. Right: The club’s new crest. Left: Cardiff City’s old badge. Right: the club’s new crest.

Fans have a deep affinity with their club’s crest – as Everton found out last year. The club altered its badge in order to make it more “modern and dynamic” amid claims that it was under pressure from television broadcasters to make the badge more accessible on TV. But Everton had made the change without consulting its fanbase. The revamp included the removal of the prominently displayed laurel wreaths and the club’s Latin motto “Nil Satis Nisi Optimum” (nothing but the best is good enough). Within 48 hours, 16,000 fans (Latin lovers, the lot of them, it seems) signed a petition against the new logo and the club was forced to backtrack and redesign the redesign – this time in full consultation with fans.

Left: Everton’s old crest. Centre: The originally redesigned offering. Right: The new badge, designed in consultation with fans. Left: Everton’s old crest. Centre: the originally redesigned offering. Right: the new badge, designed in consultation with fans.

Everton had the sense to see the error of its ways and ensure that fans were (eventually) part of the redesign process. But when Hull City AFC owner Dr Assem Allam announced he wanted to change the 110 year-old club’s name to the Hull Tigers, he had no intention of holding court with the supporters. When fans formed protest group “City Till We Die” in response – he responded: “[The fans] can die as soon as they want, as long as they leave the club for the majority who just want to watch good football."

Allam’s reasons for changing the club’s name were rooted in business. He argued that the City suffix was “common” and that replacing it with Tigers (a reference to the club’s orange and black striped kit) would give Hull City a “stronger brand identity”. Ultimately, the Football Association (FA) Council intervened and rejected Allam’s application to change the club’s name. The decision validated the importance of maintaining a brand’s identity in the face of potentially damaging change.

Though there is more to a brand’s identity than its logo and name, they are often the most tangible elements. It’s important to protect them. As Dave has said before, to treat them as disposable assets that can be manipulated or replaced at the drop of a hat means brands risk diluting their heritage – and their audience might struggle to identify with them as a result.

3. Behaviour

Fulham Football Club places a premium on family values and playing the game honestly and properly. Last year, Fulham removed two managers in one season as we hurtled towards relegation. The decisions didn’t sit right with me – hiring and firing with such nonchalance wasn’t the way I was used to Fulham behaving. Similarly, it reportedly fired a number of its senior players, including the captain, via perfunctory emails. This contributed to a feeling of disillusionment among the fans, who chanted “we want our Fulham back” at games.

When Fulham dismissed its third manager in less than a year in September, the club’s owner Shahid Kahn created a five-man panel to select a new boss and consulted with fans during the process, an echo of Everton’s belated badge collaboration. The transparency of the process and the ultimate decision has gone a long way to repairing the club’s standing among fans like me.

When Sheffield United, and later Oldham Athletic, recently attempted to sign Ched Evans following his release from prison for rape last October, their communities and fans voiced their concerns and the clubs’ main sponsors threatened to withdraw their support. Sheffield United lost a trio of club patrons in reaction to their pursuit of the player and sponsors Mecca, Nando’s, Zen Office and Verlin Rainwater Solutions all said they planned to cut ties with Oldham, ultimately ending the club’s move for Evans.

Such negative public relations can only be damaging to a club, a brand and its leadership. In a hyper-connected age driven by mobile and social media, brands that don’t behave the right way are found out quickly – you only have to look at the problems befalling big brands like Tesco and Starbucks in recent years to see the reputational damage caused by misbehaviour.

Not all brands enjoy the unbreakable bond with their customers that football clubs do with their fans. So they have to work even harder to nurture and grow those relationships. The key is not just to understand your audience, but to listen to them. Failing to do so can mean the difference between a business growing or stagnating (or worse). Not, perhaps, a matter of life and death – but important enough to make you raise your game.

Jamie has left The Frameworks.


  • Football
  • Branding
  • Customer service
  • Brands
  • Identity
  • Fulham FC