Cracks in the Arsenal Brand

November 18, 2014

Arsenal’s early season struggles have brought out the well worn and often angry portrayals of manager Arsène Wenger’s tactical cluelessness, his transfer ineptitude, his awkward man-management, and his geriatric stubbornness.

The suspect evidence supporting these characterizations and the logical fallacy of the Arsenal=Arsène equation only seem to intensify the appeal of these arguments. It’s gotten to the point that unthinking perceptions are reshaping the Arsenal brand; as a result, the club is facing a deeper issue than the manager’s performance or the team’s lackluster form.

What makes a football brand

In a largely problematic account of Arsenal’s 2013-14 season (“Arsène and Arsenal: The Quest to Rediscover Past Glories”), Alex Fynn presents a strong foundation in brand theory. Brands aren’t just logos or taglines, explains Fynn, but are collections and expressions of the rational and emotional attributes associated with an organization.

These attributes give brands distinctive personalities, such as Volvo’s “Crisp and Safe” and Apple’s “Cool and Innovative,” which shape the main characters in those organizations’ stories. The dramatic or comedic pull of these stories, along with the personalities and values they express, attract like-minded individuals.

Even more than other sports, football engenders strong brands, Fynn points out, because the dramatic impact is so great. One late moment of brilliance or bad fortune can overturn a result that seemed a foregone conclusion for 89 minutes. That’s unmatched dramatic potential.

The geographic, historical, and cultural identifications of football clubs also make them sturdy vessels for brands, and clubs and their supporters can easily identify themselves in opposition to the “other” created by rivalries .

Elements of the Arsenal brand

Although Arsenal’s brand benefits from clear differentiation with Tottenham, Chelsea, and Manchester United, the club has reaped its biggest reputational reward by honing its own personality. I would define this as “Refined, Successful, and Sensible.” (See “The Brand’s the Thing” and “Whiffing on Risk” on my personal blog for additional thoughts.)

At the foundation of these personality traits lie the club’s historical values:

  • A distinctive balance between English football tradition and innovation
  • Adherence to standards of conduct that denote “class”
  • Consistent success at the highest level of the sport

Arsenal promises those who have identified with it that it will live out these values and behave in accordance with its underlying personality. Breaking that promise could make supporters and sponsors question their loyalty, with major cultural and financial consequences.

Fissures

Just three months ago, Arsenal appeared to be reaffirming its core personality and values, with world-class acquisitions joining the club soon after an FA Cup triumph. The speed and irrationality of the shift in perceptions should trouble CEO Ivan Gazidis and other club executives, because they suggest that a different, much less positive, brand story is replacing the advantageous one.

Here’s how it’s happening: First, the promise of potential success appears to be an empty one. It’s extremely unlikely that the club will win the Premier League or the Champions League this season. That’s the standard of success the club has established for itself, and it will once again fall short.

Instead, as Andrew Mangan pointed out on the November 7 Arsecast, we are witnessing a routine of top-four league finishes and exits after the round of 16 of the Champions League.

This pattern of performance lessens the excitement because it’s so predictable. Add that to the team’s inability to win matches against the top domestic competition, and you’ll struggle to find compelling drama.

Second, the club’s image as an innovator is getting weaker. With the same manager for 18 years, no matter how sincerely he might profess new ideas or his focus on the future, Arsenal is always going to appear hidebound. (One reason I think so many supporters were excited about the appointment of Shad Forsythe as head of athletic performance enhancement is that it hinted at the club’s innovative best.)

The third brand problem is that the personality trait “Sensible” is being undermined by a perception that identical weaknesses cause the same results year in, year out. Facts and reasonable analysis to the contrary, “defensive frailty” is Arsenal’s downfall. It doesn’t matter that the major problem in 2013-14 might well have been a lack of speed and in 2012-13 a lack of creativity. The story is already written.

The persistence and immediacy of this narrative are strong evidence that Arsenal’s brand has shifted.

Impact

If this analysis is right, a succession of good results won’t move the brand back onto favorable ground. Only a major achievement, a Premier League title or a Champions League trophy, will be sufficient for that.

Major sponsors seem comfortable with this scenario. The lucrative deals with Emirates Airlines for shirt and stadium sponsorship and Puma for playing gear indicate that those companies continue to see considerable advantage in aligning with Arsenal. How secondary and regional sponsors weigh the Arsenal brand will be crucial to higher commercial revenue.

Meanwhile, supporters have communicated mixed messages about their loyalty to the brand. The increase in season ticket prices, coming as it did as the brand was shifting, sparked vocal criticism. What appeared an attempt to capitalize on the FA Cup success and hope for the future has instead made longtime match goers question their commitment to an organization whose brand promises are shaky.

Despite the reaction, the waiting list for Arsenal season tickets remains long. What proportion of season ticket holders in years to come will be new? How many ticket holders will leave their seats empty? And how will those developments affect the stadium atmosphere, which is part of what any sports organization sells to sponsors, broadcasters, and fans?

These are potentially much more troubling questions for the club than are any about the manager’s transfer, team setup, or personnel decisions. They aren’t as dramatic or obvious, but structural questions rarely are.

 


Comments

  1. Lee Zakow - December 3, 2014 at 20:22

    Unfortunately, I think this team is stuck in the past with little forward vision. I say that as a shareholder who knows the business side of sports.

    Take the team’s first visit to the U.S. Of course I understand that playing preseason matches in the Far East is more lucrative – right now – there is the future to consider. Every major sporting league in the U.S. realizes it. Why else would MLB open the season in Australia, a non-traditional market, rather, than say, Mexico? Why would the NFL have three games in London this season and next season, with the goal of an 8-game schedule? It’s called taking risks. The status quo is fine, as long as you are winning.

    As far as Coach Wenger’s tenure, even the most successful of managers and coaches get replaced. Look no farther than the Dallas Cowboys, which I think is the fifth-most recognized sports brand in the world. Coach Tom Landry and the front office built the team from a winless expansion team to be THE brand in American sports. NFL Films called them “America’s Team,” and QB Roger Staubach was called Captain America. In the 70s you either loved the Cowboys or hated them, but the brand resonated. Then, when Jerry Jones bought the team in 1989, he cleaned house. The Cowboys had been mediocre at best since 1984, and Jones rebuilt the Cowboys with bold risk taking. I’m not advocating bold risk taking, but the Cowboys are still called “America’s Team” and are one of the most valuable brands in the world for a reason. The status quo isn’t good enough. Also, like Landry, Chuck Noll of the Steelers, Tommy Lasorda of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama, managers and coaches have a useful shelf life. Very, very few coaches and managers hold on for many years and go out on top. Maybe the time is right to invest in new markets, a new coaching staff, embracing shareholders, etc.

    Reply

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