The sports branding dilemma

Having a personal interest in sports communications, Account Manager Charlie Martin investigates the controversy within football club branding and how this translates to the professional services environment we operate in at Within International.

Agencies often speak of ‘brand identity’, as a concept, being grounded in emotion – how does your brand make your audience feel and what would you like them to do as a response? And while most brands strive to elicit a strong emotional connection from their audience, there are few examples as overtly affecting as those in sport.

A sports team’s badge, kit and symbolism are at the heart of a fan’s experience. Tradition is a keystone of any institution, and sport is no different. Fans will resent change in most aspects of their beloved team. The brand of a club is revered by its fans, so why do clubs change them?

Whether fans like it or not, modern sport is a business. Decisions are not made just for their sporting merit; they are equally made to enhance finances. In an industry driven by engagement, popularity, loyalty, and consumer behaviour, standing out and being relevant is essential for success.

“The brand must capture the imaginations of people who are not necessarily into football but can be persuaded by the concept of being a ‘part of the club’.”

With an estimated 3.5 billion football fans in the world, there is a huge market to tap into. As with any logo – this core branding is the visual representation of the football club itself. Naturally, it should therefore evoke emotion. This can explain why a team like Juventus replaced their traditional badge for a sleeker, modern design that is undoubtedly more marketable – The Old Lady steps into the 21st century. The change was viewed with disdain; however, as with most bold changes, the new has gradually become the norm.

Giorgio Ricci, Juventus’ Chief Revenue Officer, said their rebrand was “about being able to be identified as something wider than a pure football brand.” (Source: Bleacher Report). This short quote summarises every team’s goal as a business: the brand must capture the imaginations of people who are not necessarily into football but can be persuaded by the concept of being a ‘part of the club’. This might entail following social media accounts, buying kits… and maybe attending a game or two.

Photograph of the MetLife Stadium
Questions of rebranding are equally pertinent with American Football teams.

“Football has to evolve. It is losing interest. We have to think why 16–24-year-olds are losing interest.” Whilst the Real Madrid president, Florentino Perez’s, comments are exaggerated for self-interest, there is some truth in it. The young ‘FIFA playing’ fan is the future consumer, and every club is vying for the biggest slice of the pie. It is unlikely these fans will consider the historic eccentricities of a club; they are much more interested in the experiences the club can provide them. Young fans are more likely to interact with the team’s brand on Instagram or FIFA, therefore the brand must be effective on these platforms. But why would current match going fans care about that? And, after all, they are the existing stakeholders – surely their voice is the loudest?

When Perez, and others, pushed for a new European Super League, they failed to realise the significance of history and tradition to fans. The attempt to change what has been a century-old tradition of competitive domestic leagues was rash, to say the least. The so-called ‘legacy fans’ came out in their thousands to protest the proposed changes. The history of a club is intrinsic to its identity, and it must be considered when proposing to modernise a brand, in any sense. Football teams such as Chelsea, in 2005, and Manchester City, in 2016, reverted to historic iterations for their brand, and these have been viewed favourably. On the other hand, there are examples where imagery associated with a club must change to align with modern standards and morals: the Exeter Chiefs have just recently agreed to drop their Native American branding.

Further examples proving that business incentives cannot overcome sentiment in a sports brand redesign are evident at Cardiff City Football Club. Vincent Tan hoped a rebrand would make the club more appealing to foreign markets, particularly in his home country of Malaysia. In 2012, he insisted that the club change their colours from blue to ‘lucky red’, and the badge from a bluebird to a dragon. Despite the promise of a £100m investment, fans were furious; it received widespread criticism and protest. In 2015, the club restored its original badge and colours. Tan himself admitted that it was a huge error to enforce such drastic changes that detracted from the club’s identity.

“The good news is corporates, in most cases, need not be so fearful of change.”

A balance must be made when rebranding a club, or team. Sporting institutions must move with the times, but they cannot simply dismiss their traditions. The need to attract new consumers cannot risk alienating existing fans. Although there are few industries where brand and rebranding can evoke such emotion as in sport, does this overt reaction translate to how our clients view a brand refresh in big business? Do they bring these day-to-day, personal experiences with brands into the work context and fear the same uproar?

The good news is corporates, in most cases, need not be so fearful of change. Unlike football or, in fact, most consumer brands, we do not have emotional or traditionalised connections to big business. While football fans are enraptured by tradition – clients are more often interested in where you’re going, rather than where you have been.

As a club’s brand represents the many aspects of its historic identity, a company’s brand must represent its people, unique offering and specialisations. How does your brand differentiate from your competitors? What does it say about your values? Or the type of service you provide? As a professional services company, the core purpose of your brand identity is to instil confidence in your stakeholders and provide a visual representation of your people, values and vision.

“The fundamental principles of a brand refresh remain the same: do your research, connect with the stakeholder, understand the current market and look forward.”

However, despite the obvious differences between the two industries, the fundamental principles of a brand refresh remain the same: do your research, connect with the stakeholder, understand the current market and look forward. Failing to do so may result in disasters such as the Leeds United rebranding in 2017. Getting it right can lead to financial gain, improved cultural relevance and a better connection to current and future stakeholders.

Looking to get your next brand refresh right? We can help. View our case studies here.

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