Monday, 8 July 2013

Identity Crisis: Football, Branding and Cardiff City

Identity Crisis: Football,
Branding and Cardiff City
In this blog, rather than focusing on marketing in the Higher Education sector, I thought it would be interesting to focus on another services sector that, like Higher Education, can be subjected to some resistance when the marketers take hold.  It is well known, of course, that football is now more than just a sport.  And over the last few decades we've seen many examples of how to, and how not to, run a football club as a business.

Of course, given my location, the natural thing to have done here would have been to write a blog on Chester Football Club.  It’s certainly had its fair share of turmoil over the last decade or so and would have made for an interesting case study.  However, given my sense of national pride, it’s only natural that I would look to focus my attention on the industry in the ‘land of my fathers’.

In particular, I thought we’d turn our attention to the topic of branding and whether it is possible, or even ethical, to re-brand a football club.  In one form or another, this is a matter most followers of Cardiff City have been debating about over the last 12 months.


Vincent Tan
So, what’s the background?  Well, by virtue of winning the Championship and promotion to the Premier League, Cardiff City have probably enjoyed one of the most successful seasons in the history of the club.  However, like so many other clubs today, Cardiff City has been a club plagued with financial problems in recent years and it is only through the backing of some big investors that the club is still a tenable venture.  Vincent Tan is the biggest of these investors, who took control of the club in 2010 when he bought a 36% share in the club. And it could be strongly argued that, without the backing of Vincent Tan and this financial stability, Cardiff City wouldn't have enjoyed this success. Yet, despite this recent success, not all Cardiff City fans have necessarily taken to Vincent Tan and his ideas for the future of the club.

All change

Bluebirds or Dragons?
With Cardiff City now a club competing in the Premier League, it’s a product that will enjoy a much higher profile on the global stage.  However, long before this new status was secured, a number of other changes were implemented that essentially changed the identity of the club.  At the start of the 2012/13 campaign, the owners of the club decided that Cardiff City should play in a red kit, rather than in its traditional blue, and that the club badge should be redesigned to incorporate a dragon. Cardiff City is fundamentally a product that has undergone a major face lift.

Not so bad then?  After all, it isn't that unusual for a product to be repackaged, re-branded and repositioned in the market.  However, given the level of engagement and association that football fans have with the product, the marketing and branding of a football club should always be carefully thought out, with a stakeholder consultation process incorporated in order to gain customer ‘buy-in’.

Loyalty and passion

It’s true of any business really that you should never ignore your customers, but it’s rare that a customer in another sector should be so vocal about such changes being implemented.  The major difference is that, because the buying decision process is influenced by emotions and cultural allegiances, the customers of a football club are highly engrossed in the identity of their team and find it difficult to change their loyalties. In other words, if they are dissatisfied with the service, it is difficult for them to switch suppliers.  However, that said, it also needs be remembered that football clubs are providing a service that is essentially a form of entertainment and that their customers could choose to entertain themselves in another way.

New Identity
Nevertheless, the fact remains that football fans are often the most devoted advocates of their club and brand. You'd be hard pressed to find another business within another sector where the customer shows the same levels of loyalty to a brand.  And when consumers are this loyal, they tend to be a little more protective over proposed changes to the brand.  So, despite the recent success of Cardiff City on the pitch, there are sections of their customer base not entirely happy with how the club is changing its identity in order to re-position itself in the market.

The core product of football: identification, tradition and the game

Some you of you reading this blog may be asking, what does it matter what colour kit Cardiff play in? They’re still Cardiff aren’t they?  Well, essentially they are.  After all, branding isn't just about the colour of a product or the style of the logo; these are just visual representations of what the product stands for.

So perhaps we need to delve deeper into the psyche of the football fan by looking at the core product of football and its importance to the customer.

Given the popularity of the sport, there has certainly been a fair bit of academic research on the topic of marketing in football. If you fancy doing a bit of extra reading around this topic, you might like to read a paper by Barn (1998) who seeks to understand the distinct nature of the product offering and the influence this has on the behaviour of football supporters.

In this paper, the cultural aspects of football and the importance of these to the supporter are discussed at length.  It recognises that the identity of a football club is made up of tangible factors such as the stadia, the club colours, mascots and chants; as well the intangibles like the club’s history and tradition.  And it is these cultural artefacts that act as symbols of brand loyalty.  All supporters would, of course, rather be following a team with a winning habit, but dissatisfaction with team performance rarely results in brand-switching; loyalty tends to endure because of this sense of identity.

So, with this in mind, the cultural aspects of supporting Cardiff City appear to be far more important than that of supporting a successful team.  However, it should also be noted that football fans are not homogeneous and different levels of loyalty do exist amongst Cardiff’s customer base.  Therefore, to some supporters, it is the enhancement of the core product that adds to the appeal of watching Cardiff.

It is undoubtedly difficult to separate the success of the team from how marketable the football club now is.  Cardiff City now enjoys far higher average attendances compared to the days when it competed in the lower leagues of the football pyramid.  This would, therefore, suggest that, to a large contingent of supporters, the level that the team competes at is far more important to them than the colour of the kit.  Of course, it also has to be recognised that supporters will often continue to attend games despite being discontent with aspects of the club’s marketing strategy.  However, the fact remains that Cardiff City has a far more marketable product now that they are competing in the premier league against the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool.


So how far can you push the boundaries of a loyal customer base and why does the club feel the need to re-brand?

Well, in order for brands to grow and increase revenue streams, they will often look at ways to maximise the appeal of the product beyond that of its existing customer base.

The most successful football club brands aren't solely dependent upon gate receipts for income generation, but rather sales on the augmented aspects of the product: banqueting and catering, merchandise and sponsorship.  Therefore, it’s only natural that clubs, like Cardiff City, should develop strategies that will earn revenue not only from gate receipts and the selling of the core product, but also through alternative and creative selling of the wider experience of football.

Cardiff City certainly shouldn't lose sight of the core values of their brand, most importantly its association with the area of Cardiff, but similarly, it may be beneficial to look into ways of increasing the appeal of that brand beyond the boundaries of the city and the South East Wales region.

Cardiff City’s re-branding strategy is an attempt to widen the appeal of the club in Asia, a key target market for the club where there is already an enthusiasm for Premier League football.  And, in this culture, red is a colour associated with luck, joy and celebration.  When it comes to international marketing, it’s always important to consider how your product will be interpreted overseas. Colours, symbols and names are all aspects of your product that can be misinterpreted in an overseas market unless the product is adapted accordingly.

In order to further widen the club’s appeal in Asia, the club has even considered changing the name from Cardiff City to Cardiff Dragons.  For many supporters, this would have been a step too far, taking the club even further away from its original identity, but this proposal has since been revoked.

The red conversion

So, despite some resistance from the core customer base, for now the future of Cardiff City looks set to be red and the dragon an integral part of the new identity.  However, it’s likely that there will be some opposition to these modifications long into the future.

Bluebirds Unite
Since the re-brand, a number of on-line petitions have been set up opposing these alterations and a supporters group called Bluebirds Unite founded with a focus on fighting these changes.  To this group of consumers, the colour blue and the symbolism of the bluebird is an essential part of Cardiff’s identity.

Attempts have been made by the club to encourage supporter ‘buy-in’ to the new colour by means of a free red scarf and the chance to win a season ticket.  And whilst this gift may have been gratefully received by some sections of support, to others it was simply seen as a bribe.

When Cardiff City won promotion to the Premier League, The Guardian newspaper published an article focusing on the club’s new identity.  Profiling the views of a long standing Cardiff City supporter, the article professed that 'Cardiff City weren't promoted last night. Cardiff City died last summer' On balance, this supporter decided that ‘it's better to be away from the venal, soul-destroying situation at Cardiff City.’  

It will certainly be interesting to see how the next few seasons unfold for Cardiff City both on and off the pitch; and also how much the supporters will stand for on the basis of being delivered a premium quality product.

As both a marketer, a football fan and a follower of Welsh soccer, I hope, whatever happens, Cardiff City will prosper.  Business and sport don't always mix well together and, in recent years, too many clubs have gone to financial ruin as a result of being badly run and, more often than not, ignoring the opinions of their supporters.

Tenuous Link

Ok, I admit it, there isn't really an obvious link between marketing a university and marketing a football club, but being the University advocate for all things Welsh, I just couldn't resist the temptation of blogging about a topic that has had its fair share media coverage back home in Wales. However, what this blog does demonstrate is the importance of branding and the importance of understanding how your brand is interpreted by your stakeholders.

Branding is as important to a university as it is to a football club, a retailer or a fashion designer. Your brand defines who you are, what you stand for and what you do.  It's a means to differentiate yourself from the competition.  And when an applicant to the University of Chester chooses to study at Chester, they are making an investment into an education that will brand who they are for the rest of their life.

Until the next communication…


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