When it comes to the top clubs, “brand” can be seen as a dirty word. But an own-goal like the ESL shows how important brand really is.
In the astonishing storm in a championship tea cup that was the rise and fall of the European Super League, an interesting theme started to emerge. From social media to the tabloids to (virtual) club terraces, everyone seemed to be talking about “brands.” Or, more specifically, how they had no place in football.
It was a prevalent theme on Twitter, with users jokingly comparing Juventus, Barcelona et al to Fendi, Gucci and others of the world’s most valuable brands. It was the argument of The Mail On Sunday, which ran the disparaging headline “Customers not fans. Brands not clubs.” It was even the angle UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson took in the House of Commons claiming that the worst part of the ESL was that it “would have taken clubs that take their names from English towns and cities and turn them into global brands with no relation to the fans.”
The message is clear; when it comes to the beautiful game, behaving “like a brand” is a red card offence.
And for those of us who spend our days working with brands, that’s fascinating. Because if the enormous backlash over the past few days has indicated anything, it’s that the teams involved haven’t considered their brands enough. In fact, a bit of brand-led thinking could have helped them avoid this foul altogether.
When politicians and pundits talk about “brand” they often mean “business”. But to use those two words interchangeably overlooks the potential of one to help and inform the other. Brand is the way that businesses share their story to the world. It’s a set of principles that guide every decision, whether that’s launching a new product or entering a new partnership.
“…would have taken clubs that take their names from English towns and cities and turn them into global brands with no relation to the fans.”
UK Prime Minister
A key part of branding is staying authentic. Brand reminds you what you stand for as an organisation and signposts the way forward to make sure you stay on course. It gives you key principles that you’ll (hopefully) never compromise. If clubs had considered their own brand principles when weighing up whether to join the ESL, they might have acted differently. As the recent outcry has shown, a core element of the brand of most football clubs is the concept of excitement, competition and the ability to rise through the ranks. With that in mind, a league that removes all sense of competition or surprise is “off-brand” by definition.
Another important measure in branding is relevancy – relating to the people that matter. That means considering them in your decision-making and doing the legwork behind the scenes to bring everyone along on the journey. The decision to join the ESL appears to have been taken behind closed doors, with fans and even players seemingly blindsided by the decision. As any brand manager knows, the key to successful change is considering key stakeholders, canvassing their opinions and communicating changes way ahead of time.
The irony of all this (at least from the perspective of a brand consultant) is that, had it been handled correctly, the ESL could potentially have been a positive change to the global brand perception of football. Viewership has been falling in recent years and corruption scandals with bodies like FIFA have tarnished many people’s perception of the game. In this context, there was enormous scope for clubs to innovate, organise and create something better. Had the clubs involved thought long and hard about staying true to their origins and engaging fans in the process, a new tournament could have posed a healthy disruption to an encumbered game. As it is, the mishandling of the affair has seen the big clubs take a serious dip in their brand trust, while the football establishment has enjoyed the boost of being on the “right side”.
The truth is that when it comes to football, acting like a brand – meaning: adopting the fundamentals of brand strategy to inform your decision making – is something that clubs could actually benefit from. It would ensure that in their quest to become more financially sustainable, they remember to stay authentic to their roots and relevant to the people who matter most. Because, as we’ve seen, anything less will lead to a dramatic own-goal.