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What does Manchester United tell us about brand planning?

By: Mike Alhadeff, Senior Strategist at AMV BBDO

Anybody that knows me, will know that I’m a massive Manchester United fan.

Which has made the last month particularly painful.

Or indeed the last decade since they last won the Premier League title under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Much has already been written about the post-Ferguson era, from the failures of various managers, poor player recruitment and even how the club is run itself.

But what can be described is ultimately a failure of brand. Now here, I’m not talking of modern football clubs as commercial entities with their various gimmickry sponsorship deals and noodle partnerships. This is only the surface level of what a brand may constitute. What I’m referring to is something more fundamental and abstract but can be brought to life through the prism of the last ten years at Manchester United. Indeed, it may even provide some valuable lessons. In fact, Manchester United may offer the cautionary tale of how not to build a brand in the 21st century.

So, what I am talking about? At its core, I’m talking about the basics of brand building. In their seminal research for the IPA, Peter Field and Les Binet have outlined the complexities of building a brand in the digital age – the delicate balancing between long-term brand investment and short-term sales activation. Importantly, the refer to the ’60-40 split’ between brand and sales as the optimum for growing a brand.

Anyway, what does this have to do with Manchester United and football? In short, United have fallen into the trap of many modern brands, putting too much focus on short-term ‘sales activations’ at the expense of more longer-time thinking with predicable results. Of course, United doesn’t make and sell products, so the short-term ‘sales activations’ in this context are the buying and selling of players, but the analogy is still pertinent.

Why? Because over the last decade United have spent around half a billion pounds on players with no discernible improvement on the pitch. You could say they have become hooked on short-term fixes, lurching from one marquee play to the next in the hope it will transform their fortunes on the pitch. And like much of today’s short-term thinking, the focus has been on data with United employing 15 data analysts to scour the globe for talent. This clearly has not only not worked, but it has also seen things go backwards.

This is because there has been an absence of a wider philosophy which would help propel the club forwards. Various managers have come and gone, trying to impose their visions and structures, but they have only remained skin deep, leaving the club lacking a wider philosophy. It means when star players arrive, there is no sense of the collective or shared mission with the inventible consequences. As Field and Binet have also shown a synergy occurs when sales and brand are in optimal balance. And the same is true in football. If a club has a clear philosophy, then players can be recruited accordingly so further embellishing the philosophy.

Now I highly doubt that Ferguson would have ever heard of either Field or Binet, or their theories on how to build a brand. But what is certain is that he instinctively knew how to balance a long-term goal with short-term priorities. In other words, he knew how to build a brand, or in this case a football club.

From the outset, he established the philosophy of United under his management. That the team were about winning, playing attacking football and supporting youth development. This was clearly set out and he never waivered in his beliefs. As time went on, this would be further embellished into mythic short hands, such as ‘Fergie Time’ (never giving up) and ‘Class of ‘92’ (a fostering of youth.) You knew what Manchester United stood for.

But at the same time, Ferguson displayed the pragmatism to keep United at the top, most notably in the buying and selling of players (the short-term ‘sales activations’.) Ferguson knew he needed to keep the club fresh whilst still maintaining the overall vision. So, he brought in Eric Cantona to instil a winning mentality, brought the likes of teenagers Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney to make a statement and got rid of disruptive players when he felt they had outlasted their use (David Beckham in 2003 and Ruud van Nistelrooy In 2006). There are other such examples throughout his 27-year tenure.

Each time the philosophy remained the same, so the changes made helped to continue to grow the club and create on-field success.

Obviously running a football club is very different to running a brand, despite the former’s modern incarnation as a ‘brand.’ However, what is revealing about the Ferguson era, is how he continued to find the perfect harmony between creating a vision and making changes when he needed to. There is perhaps a lesson in that for us all.


About Mike Alhadeff

Born and bred in East London, Mike Alhadeff has spent the past 8 years working in two of London’s top advertising agencies, Grey London and AMV BBDO. He has worked across several categories and campaigns, everything from helping Lucozade activate around the World Cup in Brazil to helping push the continued rollout of Smart Meters across Britain. Passionate about ideas, Mike takes a vigorous approach to both strategy and advertising. Outside of advertising, he is passionate about pubs and Manchester United Football Club.


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