Brands in the beautiful game

I’m a proud Villa supporter and if I’m honest, at times it can be exhausting. Watching them play brings with it a rollercoaster of emotions, unbridled joy that is often replaced with despair. Psychologists explain the reason that football fans feel such a range of emotions for their team is because of the deep sense of identity they have with the side they are rooting for and when that side has been part of your family for generations it’s a big part of your heritage. Yes football is just a game but at the same time it’s exponentially more than that.

Working in the world of branding I can see that ‘supporting’ Villa is not the same relationship I have with the other brands that I like. The history of the club plays a vital part in the sense of its identity. The crest is an iconic emblem that represents the club’s values and story and as Everton famously discovered, you mess with it at your peril. Following widespread outcry from the fans and a 23,000-strong petition, the club was forced to put forward three new logos routes – fans then voted for their favourite. If that were to happen with any of my branding projects it would be soul-destroying: designing by committee never ends well.

You’d think that Everton’s very public rebrand fail might be a lesson for other clubs not to go there, yet it’s still happening and not without controversy. Most recently with Leeds, who – clearly learning from Everton’s mistakes – took a consultative approach to their rebrand from the outset by involving 10,000 of their supporters in the branding process. The club claims the new crest reflects who they are, as well as how passionate and proud they are of their identity and the supporters. But this is Leeds United, and as Mark Ritson sums up in his article for Marketing Week,

“Leeds ‘let’s sell Eric Cantona, fire Brian Clough, get relegated’ United… when most of that heritage is also dogged by moments of incomparable stupidity it was highly likely that this would not end well at all.”

The logo was created, launched, killed and replaced with the original in six hours.

So perhaps the approach Juventus have taken might be the way forward? They claim their rebrand is designed to support their ambitious plan to go ‘beyond football’. A new and forward-thinking identity that ditches heritage for a new mark which has no authenticity, no sense of place, and is devoid of the potential for storytelling. Other than the black and white stripes, Juventus have dismissed all that was past.

If it reminds you of a lifestyle sports brand, then it’s fulfilling its purpose. The growth strategy sees the club moving beyond football and, via partnerships with other leading Italian brands, into becoming a lifestyle brand. Club President Andrea Agnelli reportedly claimed that

“this new logo is a symbol of the Juventus way of living”.

It’s no secret that football is already a multi-billion pound business and it’s an interesting idea that a football club could expand beyond its sporting origins. Manchester United and players like Ronaldo own hotels, cafés, media channels and entertainment venues, but these are inextricably linked back to football. Juventus is seeking to go beyond that and that requires a brand that moves beyond its heritage. Perhaps the closest analogy can be seen with Virgin with its family of brands from planes, trains to mobiles. Is it possible for a football club to do something similar?

“I saw the future of music in the 1970s. Now, Juventus have seen the future of football,”

said Giorgio Moroder at the launch.

It’s no surprise that clubs like Juventus are thinking beyond the fans in order to provide new revenue streams. With greater financial clout you have access to the best players and the best facilities. But ultimately, this way of thinking might not end well for the sport of football.

Recently Arsenal Manager Arsene Wenger warned that financial imbalance among football clubs is destroying competition around Europe…

“the financial attraction of the Premier League is superior to everywhere else and that attracts the best players.”

Wenger said it was clear that “something is not right in our game” with four of Europe’s top five domestic leagues practically decided halfway through the season.

And so we have come full circle. Luckily for “the beautiful game” the loyal and devoted fans will continue to keep it alive and kicking, and this engagement is gold dust in the world of brand. So, to the clubs that are still about football and realising their players’ potential: perhaps continue to focus on that and leave your visual brand identity alone for now.

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