This season’s colours

As football clubs redesign their crests, branding expert Richard Village and soccer pundit Duleep Allirajah discuss the battle between commercial interests and heritage being played out on the football field.

As football clubs redesign their crests, branding expert Richard Village and soccer pundit Duleep Allirajah discuss the battle between commercial interests and heritage being played out on the football field

The rampant commercialisation of football and the expectations of brands, which pay so much to hop into bed with the clubs, brings with it the requirement to manage their visual identities more carefully. On the one hand, there is the danger of brand melange, and the need for football clubs to show they understand the brand game. On the other, there is a resonant heritage, which makes change a sensitive matter with fans. But the identities of many football clubs have been, or are about to be tweaked, due to the continuing war on counterfeiting and its damage to lucrative merchandising opportunities.

By Richard Village, director of Fortune Street

Why have football and branding become so interlinked? I suspect it’s because football clubs implicitly deal in two things that every big brand longs for and, indeed, needs to have for ultimate success: a strong sense of identity and enormous amounts of aspiration. Like few other phenomena, clubs engender in their supporters a huge sense of belonging and loyalty, which is almost tribal.

Fans often say, without a hint of glibness, that they’d rather move country than change teams, so the clubs have, on tap, a perfect, impregnable relationship between brand and consumer. It’s no wonder, then, that other brands are so eager to jump on the bandwagon, hoping a bit of the magic and goodwill will rub off on them. Imagine if you could inspire that much loyalty and passion in a telephone handset or some photocopying equipment. Imagine if products like this, and the choices that determine our adoption of them, were as intimately linked to our sense of identity as the team we support.

Just how visceral the relationship is between football and identity can be seen in the cavalier way most football clubs treat their brands visually. New identities come and go, and sponsors’ brand identities are plastered over shirts in a way that makes you wonder whether it is the team or the handset manufacturer you are supporting.

Every season sees a design change of some sort, which, in turn, drives more merchandising. But the most powerful symbols of the identity are very basic ones – the colours – and in the perceptions of fans and laymen alike, they remain entirely constant, even though the exact shades may vary. Interestingly, only Barça, whose identity is closely tied up with ideas of Catalan nationalism, preserves the purity of its strip, never changing its colours and refusing to sully the shirts of their players with sponsors’ logos.

By Duleep Allirajah, football columnist for Spiked Online

The news that Carlsberg is bidding to become the official sponsor of the FA Cup has renewed fears that the world’s oldest football tournament could be cheapened through a corporate partnership.

So, is it true that branding is destroying the soul of football? Some Arsenal fans were unhappy to learn that their new stadium will carry the name, not of a football hero, but of corporate sponsor Emirate Airlines. When Leicester fans protested that their new Walker’s Bowl sounded too American, the club was forced to change its name to the Walker’s Stadium.

The concern is that football clubs are in danger of losing their traditional identities as a result of such commercial tie-ups. It’s exactly what the traditionalists would have you believe – football and money simply don’t mix.

It’s tempting to feel moist-eyed nostalgia for football’s pre-commercial golden age, before players became bling-adorned, Ferrari-driving, Mock-Tudor-mansion-dwelling millionaires. Tempting, but wrong. What the ‘jumpers-for-goalposts’ brigade conveniently overlooks is the fact that football was a dying sport 20 years ago. Attendances, which had been steadily declining since the 1950s, had slumped to a post-war low of 16.4 million in the 1985-6 season.

The decline could have been arrested much earlier if it hadn’t been for the steadfast refusal of the game’s administrators to permit any commercialisation. For years, the football authorities prohibited shirt sponsorship and banned live TV broadcasts of league games, for fear that gate receipts might suffer. As a consequence, the match-day experience in the 1980s remained positively prehistoric: decrepit stadiums, uncovered terraces, dismal catering facilities and toilets unfit for the developing world.

Far from killing football, the commercialisation of the game in the 1990s resuscitated it. Thanks to Sky TV revenues, spectator amenities have been transformed and the footballing spectacle itself has benefited hugely from the influx of foreign stars. Consequently, absentee fans have flocked back and league attendances are now back to the levels they were in the 1950s.

There will, invariably, be tensions between commercial demands and football’s traditions, but the anti-commercial ethos, that stunted football’s development for years, is one dead tradition for which no tears should be shed.

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