Given that most football clubs are now global brands, it is surprising that very little literature has focused on how football clubs’ brands are built over time.
Controversy exists in the current marketing literature over the use of branding in sports. Some scholars argue that supporters are likely to reject the idea of their football clubs as a brand. On the other hand, branding assists football clubs to create opportunities for people to identify with them and feel like they are a part of the club’s story. It gives football teams a personality that their fans identify with and connect with emotionally – much as they do with friends.
A brand is anything that identifies a team and seeks to differentiate it from its competitors. It includes functional elements like colour, name, and logo. It also has emotional elements – for football brands, these include brand culture and player behaviour on and off the pitch.
Football brands are important to marketers because supporters will spend more on brands they prefer. The sports industry seems to have embraced the idea of managing football teams as brands.
Superior brand management creates profitable football brands because they provide entertainment for a global audience. The total revenue of the big five European leagues of England, Italy, Germany, Spain and France between 2016 and 2017 was $16.91 billion with global broadcasting rights driving total European football market revenue beyond $28 billion.
In the light of the massive commercial success of European clubs, we conducted a study to analyse how these clubs gained a following in Ghana. We conducted interviews with Ghanaian fans of English Premier League teams and came up with three main insights about international branding strategies. In brief, these are about a local connection, perceptions of value, and accessibility.
Ghana’s passion for football
Ghana was the context chosen to explore how football clubs have built international global brands among satellite fans in a developing economy. Football is the nation’s most popular sport. The country has won the African Cup of Nations four times and has performed well at World Cup tournaments.
Many Ghanaians have developed a strong taste for foreign products and regard products from other countries as having a higher quality and value than locally produced ones. This preference for foreign products seems to extend beyond simple consumer goods and is reflected in Ghanaians’ taste for foreign football brands.
Most Ghanaian males have a passionate interest in football and avidly support one preferred club. But in Ghana, as in many other countries, support for the local leagues has been eclipsed by intense dedication to the top European leagues. Ghana’s football fans have been drawn to foreign clubs, especially the English league, and patronise replica jerseys and other related merchandise.
Building international brands
Our study, which focused on the internationalisation strategy of English Premier League clubs, aimed at understanding how football clubs have, over time, built international global brands among fans from developing economies.
These clubs enjoy high patronage owing to the presence of Ghanaian (and other African) players in the teams. Interview respondents revealed this with comments such as:
“I love Chelsea because Ghanaian midﬁelder Michael Essien used to play there some years ago”
“I like Arsenal because some time ago, they had African players like Kanu and Adebayor”.
It would seem that even when the African players have moved on, the resonance they create still aids the brand building efforts of the premier league teams.
The study also revealed that fans in Ghana perceive the premier league as a high value product and are therefore prepared to spend on it. The old marketing wisdom is that everyone who delivers a premium service can administer a premium charge and fans perceive high value in the premier league products. Some fans noted that:
“We should not be surprised that the English premier league is the best league in the world. We are talking about England, and there is a lot of investment in quality.”
“The English premier league is well-organised, competitive, interesting, well promoted and of high quality.”
Multiple distribution has also propelled this brand affinity. The English premier league is well distributed on traditional and social media. Easy access to the right audiences is always the hallmark of a superior brand as noted by one fan:
“I am aware of the current news relating to my Manchester United. I get updates on my Twitter feed, I follow them on Facebook, I follow the United stand on YouTube, and Citi FM provides me with daily updates every morning.”
These three brand building activities have led to the situation where there are almost 260 millions fans of the English premier league in Africa. Ghana has thousands of these fans. They spend several thousand dollars a year on cable television subscriptions. Multichoice Ghana also reports that the company spent £296 million to purchase exclusive broadcast rights to Nigeria and other sub-Saharan Africa markets for three years.
English premier league fans in Ghana purchase data services to stream matches and spend on club paraphernalia like jerseys and scarves to identify with their favourite clubs. Marketing communications executives also hold that Ghanaian corporate entities spend thousands of dollars to associate with broadcasts of these matches.
Brand building in other industries
Our study offers some lessons for building global brands. Brands are built on consumer insights so it is important to find out what value means to the customer and build the brand from there. For example, African players in the premier league are a strong brand building tool.
It is also crucial to discover the mechanism customers use to make purchases, to enable easy reach. The premier league’s distribution model across different platforms has made it easy for fans in Ghana to consume the product.
Finally, all excellent brands are built on excellent products. Businesses must learn to perfect their products before developing a brand from them.