The marketing own goal that is Vincent Tan’s re-branding of Cardiff City

Revising the packaging of a brand is a sure-fire way of rekindling interest in a product that has flagging sales.

Having earned a living in marketing all my working life, I’ve often been involved in ad. campaigns that have been not so much about launching a product, as about “old product development”. Perhaps the most memorable for me was Lucozade, where in 1982 I was part of the team at the Leo Burnett ad. agency which re-positioned that (sugar-and-water) drink so that it would no longer be seen only as an “in sickness” tonic. Before the relaunch, Lucozade itself was in very poor health. But the bottles were re-designed, cans began to appear, the labelling changed, the price went up to pay for our TV adverts. – and the rest has been history …

Campaign letterWhen Vincent Tan bought Cardiff City (the “Bluebirds”) in May 2010, there was very little wrong with the product. Tan promised £100 million investment in the football club, to include a new stadium and a new training ground. All that has come to pass, Cardiff spent last season in the Premier League and, despite the fact that they were relegated back to the Championship after just one campaign, of late Tan has been prepared to take out his cheque book whenever necessary to bring in new players.

Now clearly this billionaire didn’t become so financially successful by being over-sensitive about people’s feelings. One of his more outrageous actions, in December last year, was to sack the coach who had guided Cardiff into the top flight, Malky Mackay being generally acknowledged to be the best manager the club has ever had. The pretext was that Mackay was promising to bring in new players, without consulting the owner, shortly after his own assistant had been sacked for an apparent overspend. It all sounded like financial mismanagement and poor communication systems within the higher echelons of the club. An inspiring leader of men, with more than a touch of genius when it came to the nitty-gritty of football strategy and tactics, Mackay and his talents were wasted on the bonfire of Tan’s vanities.

But Tan had infuriated the supporters even more by striking a blow at the very essence of the club – its colours. Under what has proven to be a quite erroneous impression that changing the kit colour to red would make the Bluebirds more attractive to potential new supporters in the Far East, Tan insisted that the club kit be changed from blue to red.

The fans’ fury was manifest in all sorts of ways, including marches in the city centre, letters to the press and a storm of anger on social media. But strangely the most effective and visible show of discontent has been a kind of Ghandian passive resistance. Supporters have simply refused to wear the new colours. Each home match is surrounded by a sea of blue.

cardiffcrowd

What Mr. Tan doesn’t seem to get is that the fans are investors too. Aside from their purchase of season tickets, theirs is an emotional investment, a burning passion mostly founded in a very strong sense of identification with the city where they live, were born or in some other way identify with. In Cardiff, a capital city into which all aspects of Welsh culture are continuously funnelled from the surrounding valleys, that passion is more intense than is found at most sporting grounds.

This is what occurred to me last night, as I sat listening to the commentary of the first match of the 2014/15 season, an away game at Blackburn Rovers, which ended in a 1-1 draw. So many new names to get used to – new players signed during the summer. Little do the new boys realise, I thought, that there’s a secret weapon waiting for them when they play their first match at the Cardiff City Stadium, against Huddersfield on August 16th.

The roar of support from the Cardiff fans takes everyone by surprise; it’s often referred to by radio commentators visiting the ground for the first time. It’s intimidating for visiting teams and must be worth at least a one goal advantage to the home side. It’s what the Cardiff City brand is really all about. Players, managers and owners will come and go – it’s passion and heritage that makes this product what it is. Each fan is caught by a different set of emotional ties in supporting Cardiff City. The passion has an ugly side, I suppose, in that Cardiff supporters en masse have got a reputation for being prone to violence at away games. But even politicians aren’t immune from it – it’s what got ex-Labour party leader Neil Kinnock forcibly removed from his seat at the Fulham ground last season.

Defacing this cultural icon by changing the colour of the team kit may appear a deranged act; but in reality it’s probably just a marketing own goal. Longer term it won’t affect the club. No new owner in his right mind would decide to stick with the colour red in the face of the tide of blue that floods into the Cardiff City stadium for every home match. Indeed, fiddling about with the shirts and shorts just makes the supporters even more determined to protect their heritage: the more Tan says red, the more the fans say blue.

There never was anything wrong with this particular old product. It’s nice to have all that money spent on the stadium; it would be good to be back in the “Prem”; but ironically none of that really matters to Cardiff City’s main consumers.

If you really want to see whether Cardiff City is in need of some old product development, just go to a home match, stand in the crowd – and look around.

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Filed under Cardiff City, Football, Marketing

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