Come on you... Red Dragons?
Football isn’t “only a game”, as non-fans are fond of saying. It’s a business, which – in effect – makes football fans a club’s customers. But a fan’s attachment to their club’s brand runs deeper then it does to their favourite washing powder, which is something that Cardiff City Football Club’s new owners seemed to have forgotten earlier this week.
Main investor Vincent Tan and fellow owners wanted to change the club’s famous blue strip to red and ditch the ‘Bluebirds’ nickname for the new ‘Red Dragons’ identity – which they see as a nod to the club’s Welsh identity and the Malaysian owners’ Asian links. They hoped the rebrand might bring in new fans in Asia who would buy shirts and help the club fund investments in new players.
Needless to say, the proposed rebranding did not go down well with the club’s supporters (even though the club itself began life as Riverside FC in 1899). A volte-face ensued earlier today.
We asked three research experts (and football fans), Greg Sill, Ken Parker and Richard Noon, to consider the throny issue of football club rebrandings.
Greg Sill, Red Blue
The football fan in me thinks one thing, the business man another. Football clubs are brands. For supporters, in fact, they’re powerful superbrands that generate deep, emotional relationships that often endure a lifetime. It’s because of this and the ever-increasing commercialisation of the sport that a fan’s strong relationship with a club is increasingly exploited and rarely nourished. Nevertheless fans still turn up to support their team because of the powerful bond they’ve developed.
Having said that, for Cardiff to think of changing colours – the primal and tribal identifier a fan most associates with – was always going to prompt a backlash, at least in the short term. Changing things that fans most associate with a club will test loyalties to the fullest, but at the end of the day I believe the strength of relationship a fan has with their club will win out.
Ken Parker, Discovery
You can definitely upset football fans more than you can upset brand loyalists in other sectors. The reality is that their support of the team is too ingrained for something like this to have an impact on their lives. They might not come back next Saturday, they might not come back in three Saturdays’ time because they want to give you a small bloody nose and they will feel very riled, but they’re not going to go off to Swansea for example.
Interestingly, we’ve seen football fans embrace change over time – Manchester United are a good example of this. When the fans were protesting against the American owners the fans went to games in green and yellow scarves [the club’s original colours]. I don’t think you can plan something like this and take the fans with you, you have to do it out the blue. I don’t think there is any other way of doing it.
Richard Noon, Ask Insight
The brand of a football club, its colours, its mascot and its badge are in existence as a direct result of its successes, failures and ‘if only’ moments over the history of the club. The proposals at Cardiff were contentious – primarily because they failed to embark on any form of consultation with fans.
A rebrand of a football club in this manner is a dangerous route to take – it is similar to Coca-Cola changing its recipe. Our work at Huddersfield Town Football Club has shown that fans are customers, and the point at which they make the decision to purchase something like a season ticket, a replica shirt and a pie at half time is a highly emotional and often unbalanced process – success on the pitch is ultimately what drives these decisions.
The backlash from supporters and the wider sporting sector was entirely predictable. They should have engaged with their fans and commercial partners before going public with any of this.