Ever heard of Phil Chisnall? The chances are that unless you’re a fan of either Manchester United or Liverpool, the name will mean little, but his move from United to Liverpool in 1964 remains to this day, the last player to be transferred directly between the clubs. The rivalry between the two most successful sides in English football – according to legend – goes back to the competition between the two cities during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, the Manchester Ship Canal opening the city up to the sea and ending Liverpool’s monopoly on the north-west export market. How accurate this romantic account is can be debated but what is clear is that the rivalry is still as strong as ever, and as recently as 2007, the United manager Alex Ferguson blocked the sale of Gabriel Heinze to the Merseyside club.
What’s this got to do with sponsorship I hear you ask? Well, last week saw the launch of a very unusual initiative by Chevrolet – which sponsors both clubs – ahead of their FAPL clash, which United won 2-1. The advert features players from both sides talking about their respective clubs in equally glowing terms. Although the creative leaves a little to be desired, I think it says a lot about where international brands see the value of FAPL sponsorship.
There has long been a good – if often lazy – story about sponsorship of one team alienating fans of another. Where the sponsor in question provides a commodity then purchase decisions more often than not comes down to price and convenience, regardless of whether the brand sponsors a rival club. When Vodafone became sponsors of United back in 1999 stories abounded that football fans had cancelled their contracts in protest en masse but the reality was that Vodafone lost no more than two or three hundred, small fry compared with the multitude of new accounts they gained. Of course, alienation is a consideration – for years, Glasgow clubs Celtic and Rangers carried the same sponsor – but the Chevrolet activation confirms a shift in focus in brands coming into the FAPL sponsorship market.
The GM-owned brand paid for the Twitter hashtags #mufc and #lfc to be promoted on Twitter during the game and carried the URL chevroletfc.com (which is clearly still a work in progress) on United’s perimeter boards. Their target audience was not prospective car buyers either in Manchester or Liverpool, rather it was the burgeoning middle classes in China and beyond. GM are engaged in a hugely competitive battle with Volkswagen to be the leading international car brand in China and see their sponsorship with United (they will replace AON as the club’s main sponsor from next season) as a key USP in securing the preference of Chinese car buyers.
During a weekend where there was much debate about FAPL ticket pricing, the Chevrolet deals with both clubs demonstrate that the local fan is of little interest to sponsors who see the FAPL’s global footprint as a key weapon in their bid to internationalise their brands. Of course, being “official” is just the start and no doubt Chevvy will have an integrated activation strategy to reinforce the relationship on the ground through the 400 new dealerships GM are planning to open in China in 2013 alone and perhaps there is also a plan to engage with fans on a local basis as well – let’s be honest, the decision-making process as regards car purchase is very different to deciding which mobile phone network to go with. I do hope so but activations which involve both clubs will do little to demonstrate to either set of fans that the sponsor understands either them or their passion. Credibility is vitally important to football fans, rivalries run deep – as the Chisnall story demonstrates – and if sponsors don’t take the time to understand and appreciate them, alienating 50% of the target audience might just be getting off lightly.
Ben Wells – Ben has fifteen years’ experience in the commercial side of sport. Having spent six years at Chelsea FC, where he was Head of Marketing, Ben launched Ishtar Consulting in 2011 with a view to providing specialist sponsorship and marketing support to brands, rightsholders and agencies. Prior to his time at Chelsea, Ben spent nearly four years at Redmandarin, the strategic sponsorship consultancy. Follow Ben on Twitter @ben_wells1 or get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org. This blog appears regularly at http://benwells1.blogspot.com.