How misplaced branding can ruin you no matter how big you are
The story of Manchester United, the Glazers and Bruno Fernandes.
I’ve been a fan of Manchester United since 1998. when I was 7 years old.
The worldwide giants and one of the most successful clubs in the world built their success, legacy and heritage on generations of homegrown talent including the likes of sir Bobby Charlton, Duncan Edwards, Bill Foulkes, Denis Law, George Best and many others.
The club especially prides themselves on the 1986. — 2013. run under sir Alex Ferguson.
During that period Manchester United amassed 38 major accolades winning 13 Premier League titles, 5 FA Cup titles, 4 League Cup titles, 2 Champion league titles, an Intercontinental Cup and a FIFA Club World Cup title among others.
So what helped a workers club from northern England become such a worldwide behemoth and a giant in sports?
What were the underlying forces that made a difference that helped Manchester United to have such a dominance over the world of football for so many decades?
You may argue money had a lot to do with it, but it’s 2020. and the club has never had more money, yet they’re competitively unsuccessful and have been for the past few years.
So what made the difference?
The club has always had an underdog mentality where the players were raw, unapproachable, dominant and would stick it to you even if you were on their own team, not to mention if you were from another club.
The likes of Cantona, Keane, Giggs, Scholes, Ferdinand, Vidic, Van Nistelrooy, Ronaldo all had their fair share of haters, but one thing was undeniable — if you faced them, you were in for a nightmare.
There are stories about training scuffles being so rough that players faced injuries due to the copious amount of tackles and fighting for the ball being made and neither side wanting to relent because it was game time, be it training or match day.
These guys meant business and every chance they had, they proved it.
Since 2005. the club as been under the ownership of the Glazers family.
It’ll still be 8 years until Sir Alex Ferguson left the club, but the mechanisms of failed leadership were slowly starting to take place at the headquarters.
As all smart owners, when the Glazer family bought the club in May of 2005. they saw everything working and decided to stick with it for better or for worse until there was time for a change.
That time came in 2013. with the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.
That’s where the nightmare starts.
Not only did the club not win a single Premier league title in 7 years, but they’ve been dominated by League 2 sides and went through worldclass managers including Louis Van Gaal & Jose Mourinho with no apparent success apart from the Europa League title in 2017.
The club has spent 1.031+ billion euros on new signings since 2013. and has had players like Ibrahimović, Sanchez, Falcao, Valdes, Di Maria, Schweinsteiger, Mktharyan and Lukaku all come and leave the club without leaving a major impact or staying as suitable choices.
Now, you can argue that some of these players were at the end of their careers, but Zlatan is still playing in Serie A at the age of 38 and banging worldies against the toughest defenses in the world.
That being said, there’s a number of players who’ve lived their resurgences after leaving Manchester United after a few or more years at the club. These players include: Lukaku, Smalling, Depay, Ashley Young and even the club legend Wayne Rooney.
So what’s the deal with Manchester United since 2013.?
The club has invested all of their resources in marketing and making the brand popular across the world. Instead of keeping the winning culture which guaranteed all of the riches and fame in the world they’ve put the emphasis on making sure the past fortunes pay off for the owners and are now trying to capitalize on the club for their past successes.
Very simple — most of the ownership of the club has been bought on loans from the banks made against the assets of the club.
What does that mean?
They wanted to buy a valuable thing but didn’t want their own money invested in something as volatile as the sports industry so they bought 30% of the shares to have the majority ownership and then went to the banks to take loans against the assets they were the major «owners» of and got them on the basis the historical value of the club. That’s what allowed them to purchase the rest 68% and are now 98% owners of the club.
That was used to minimize liabilities and not to have spent their own money on it. They got the ownership of the club on paper but now they owe the banks money and the thing HAS to work out for them financially to be able to pay off their loans and stay in charge of the club.
That’s when the marketing, branding and overexposing the club to all the different markets including the Chinese, Islamic, USA and Spanish ones took place.
That’s when the rough training ground scuffles and match day arrogance were substituted with photo shoots for marketing campaigns.
That’s why you have the players wearing the Chinese New Year club apparel at match days, celebrating Islamic and Jewish holidays, taking pictures at hospitals and communities, having meaningless social media challenge binge videos and toning down their direct, opposing and defiant character that built the club in the first place.
I’m don’t have anything against other cultures, and in fact rejoice in the diversity of opportunities in this world : but you can’t have somebody do 365 things and expect them to be great at what they do. That’s not what players are supposed to do.
This is all used to provide material for new markets to get to know the club and potentially attract the new customers. Super exposing past glory and moments of individual ingenuity in videos before game time to inflate a directionless, losing team and provide a sense that the club is still valuable.
It might be in presentation, but the reality as we all know is completely different.
The Bruno Fernandes effect
When Manchester United signed Bruno Fernandes, there came a glimpse of what the club was like during their silverware laden years and how we all feel about it.
In his Instagram post after the Chelsea game he answers a provocation from the already neutralized Anthony Martial’s Instagram post where Martial boasts after a goal saying to Fernandes “I score because it wasn not your pass” with a laughing emoji to which Fernandes responded: “Next time I pass to you, try to not to miss it” with an angry cursing emoji.
That single instance showed a character that hasn’t been seen in the United dressing room for a long time.
In his first five games he showed defiance, arrogance and leadership in his game. Taking shots, making unorthodox passes and running all over the field until the last whistle allowing for his team-mates to follow his lead and consequentially earning Manchester United three points against Chelsea and Watford with Fernandes ending up on the score sheet and delivering two assists in the process. He has been named MOTM in all of his opening three games.
What does that have to do with the current Manchester United team in the post Sir Alex Ferguson era?
It’s the direct OPPOSITE of what we have been seeing.
He isn’t interested in making friends, he knows what his job is and isn’t startled by the institution, teammates or the opposition for that matter.
The arrogance, self-servedness and willingness to go all the way despite the lack of those qualities around him shows us what we have been missing in the last 7 years.
Manchester United players of weaker character and with a lack of proper guidance and/or under the contractual agreements to conduct photo shoots, video releases and media material have lost the sense of what it means to play for this club.
It never meant being popular, earning absurd wages through contracts and endorsement. It never meant having anything guaranteed. All it ever meant was playing proper football and having an attitude about it.
An attitude that has been systematically watered down through branding and marketing constraints put on players in the last 7 years to make them more likable and therefore ruining the club, world-class managers, players and the fans in the process.
This is Manchester United
I only hope that his arrival signals a turning point for the players and that his character doesn’t fall under the unscrupulous machine that the current ownership and management are.
Contractual agreements, banks, partners and investors will always demand their share of the clubs’ management rights through their capital injections but money never made Manchester United.
The character did.
And that’s what we’ve been missing.
The unapologetic, fear inducing, arrogant, self-serving, balls out playing day in day out, no matter the opposition, be it our own players against themselves to prove who’s the best in training or having them face whoever on match day.
We don’t stand down from nobody, and we don’t quit until the very end.
How branding works elsewhere
They all stayed true to themselves which allowed them to grow their cultures, win titles and increase their fan bases across the world.
In the famous word Tim Grover NBA Superstar private coach (Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Dwayne Wade, Charles Barkley etc.) when asked about the Tiger Woods wife-cheating downfall and the usually dominant, harsh and arrogant champion issuing an audience targeted soft, mild and uncharacteristically toned down public apology to please his sponsors and preserve his image:
“I didn’t wanna see him do that. What happened is strictly between Tiger and his wife. You don’t let them take your balls like that. I wanted to see him say: Yes I did it, so what? You have nothing to lose then. You’re like the walking dead then.
And if you’re worrying about the sponsors. Start winning something. They’ll aaaaall come running back.”
And for a long time Tiger was no where to be found because he was trying to please everybody else and neglected what brought him to no.1 in the first place. It’s 2020. and Tiger Woods is back at the top of his game with the sponsors fighting for him once again.
That is the power of winning.
Branding vs. Winning
You can’t tell people what you are, you can only show them.
That’s the integral part of what’s been missing in the Manchester United locker room and through the various levels of management and ownership.
After the well oiled and winning ways of Sir Alex Ferguson’s era, the club has been trying to capitalize on the name and history of Manchester United instead of making proper football decisions and growing a culture from what it already had.
The only issue with the Glazers is that they’re good businessmen to spot an opportunity but have no clue of what owning and growing a football club means.
You can’t have somebody do 365 things and be great at them all. This is a football club and not a Chinese merch shop. We don’t sell, we win and the selling is done by itself.
It’s not in the numbers, it’s not in the markets, it’s not in jerseys sold today or the number of sponsorship posts made on the social media channels. It’s in the football.
It’s in the long run.
I’d never seen Roy Keane sell me a pair of Predators through Instagram, but I’ll love him forever for standing up against Patrick Vieira every time we faced Arsenal, or anybody anywhere for that matter.
There was no Paul Scholes cologne or baby stroller but you couldn’t buy the lad even if you offered him a blank cheque. Same goes for Giggsy, Gary Neville and all the other lads who played the game because they loved it, gave their heart into it and wouldn’t stand down from anybody.
That’s what Bruno Fernandes is doing and you better not screw this up.
There’s no amount of photo shoots, partnership deals or Bruno Fernandes billboards that can replace what he’s doing on the field. And to be honest, if there was no Fernandes jersey in the club store and we kept on winning, people would tear the club down to buy one.
Your branding is not in being likable or approachable. It’s not in selling. It’s in the winning, the character and the culture to overcome no matter who you have to face. It’s about always standing up for the same thing day in and day out.
That’s why we love the clubs we are fans of, and that what you can’t sell or buy. We don’t love the smoke and mirrors, we love heart. And the heart has been missing for a certain period of time because we were trying to appeal to everybody and stood for nothing.
You know what that’s called? A whuss.
And I among millions of other fans fell in love for Manchester United because it was the exact opposite of a whuss.
Self serving, arrogant, feisty, relentless and undeniably great.
It’s still there, just under the financial obligations and branding limitations to serve those it owes.
Stop trying to please everybody and concentrate on winning, they’ll all come running back.
And if you don’t know how to do that — like in all ventures of life: if you’re in too deep, stop digging. Step out of the way let somebody who knows lead the way and for goodness’ sake:
Allow us to love our club for what it is and not for what you want to sell us to believe it is!
That’s your answer, that’s your branding.