Can Design Help Football Reconnect With Fans?
As part of Creative Review's 'Sport and Creativity Report', Thisaway Founder and Creative Director, Graeme Cook was asked to give his thoughts on the role branding and design plays within football clubs.
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As football clubs evolve into competitive brands, we look at how design and comms are shaping the image of the game, and what top flight clubs can learn from smaller teams.
“I think in an age where football fans engage with their clubs daily on social media, and where the club brand and identity must work on multiple platforms, having a solid brand is hugely beneficial,” says Graeme Cook, founder of branding agency Thisaway, which worked with Brentford FC on a redesign of the club’s crest and identity. “That said, a lot depends on where that club is at in its evolution, and the fundamental question to ask is why are they looking to undertake a branding project?”
Football clubs around the world are transforming more explicitly into brands, and there are myriad reasons as to why they are thinking this way. For those in lower divisions, having a strong brand can help to bring in sponsorship – all the more crucial in the face of the costly past year – while top tier clubs are rethinking their brand identities to have impact and reach on a global stage. It’s a similar story for the tournaments themselves, as seen with the new identity created by branding agency Works for the UEFA Women’s Champions League, which has an aspirational visual language as the competition attracts more money and eyeballs.
These shifts perhaps explain why there has been a move towards clean, digital-friendly club identities that often embrace a more polished, minimal design language, as per the latest designs adopted by Juventus and Inter Milan.
“I think what’s happened is sport and specifically football has matured very quickly, because as an industry, they were potentially quite far behind other industries in terms of branding,” says Simon Dixon, co-founder of DixonBaxi. The brand consultancy led the redesign of AC Milan’s visual identity, which aimed to situate the club within the city’s wider cultural context and use a “broader reference palette than just sport”. He believes that football is finally tapping into its worldwide reach, where the big clubs are competing for a share of the same audience. “There’s 80,000 people in the stadium, but they have 450 million fans around the world,” he says, highlighting that marketing, content, design and the brand experience all have a role to play.
“Having worked with Nike for over 12 years, I know that club marketing budgets are often negligible for brands that mean so much to millions of people. In many cases, these budgets are less than a regular squad player will earn in a week,” says Cairns. “These budgets are a metaphor for the apathy that exists around supporter communication. Club comms increasingly seem to mirror their players who are media trained to give bland, indistinguishable statements when the creative opportunity and culture around the game is so vibrant and rich. It’s an open goal but few seem capable of putting the ball in the net.”
Cook agrees that comms can be the difference when it comes to connecting with audiences: “You will never please everyone, but in our experience what resonates most is capturing the emotion or feeling of a club more through content than design.”
New owners, execs or managers can turn a club’s fortunes around, but they can also be seen as hostile figures coming in and swiftly making changes as though they know better than the generations of supporters who came before them – and design is arguably no different, meaning rebrands are often contentious.
“The crest is like any logo. Logos are only meaningful if you fill them with something, and a crest on a shirt is representative of all those memories and all the history of the club, so you have to be very sensitive about that iconography and the semiotics of it,” he says. Supporters are just as protective over club colours, as the owners of Cardiff City FC discovered during a years-long battle to reinstate its condemned change of kit colour.
“The fact is, with such an emotionally invested audience there needs to be a thread of familiarity within the design, or you really risk a backlash like what happened to Leeds United,” says Cook. “You also have to remember as a designer that these projects are one of the few occasions in your career where your design might end up tattooed on a fan’s body, so there’s pressure for sure!”
Thisaway initially worked with Brentford FC on creating a fresh brand system, but it came apparent that the existing crest would need to be revised too. It was a job “born out of practicality and necessity more than anything. And I believe that will probably be the case for a lot of teams outside the championship, as many clubs will no doubt have crests that go back years to pre-digital days.” Thisaway’s bee emblem came from looking back at the club’s heritage and past designs for inspiration, which Cook says is often the case with redesigns.
That said, he believes the more modern visuals seen at clubs nowadays aren’t necessarily out of place: “Football clubs have many stakeholders all with varying opinions, and creativity can definitely help connect both old and new fans, but more and more, fans are used to seeing slick visuals in advertising and social feeds.” Dixon agrees: “I think what you do is you just use the design language that is common to people in other areas of their life and how it fits into their lifestyle.”
But does adopting a sleeker brand identity and crest that might resonate with newer audiences risk shunning the heritage that’s so important to lifelong supporters? “I think there’s a bit of a misconception that fans are kind of Luddites or [stuck] in the past,” Dixon says. “They’re just as sophisticated as anybody else in terms of the way they see brands. They all use the same things we all do so I think there’s a bit of a disconnect there.
“You just have to explain the value of the change like you would do in other areas of design,” he adds. “If you change for change’s sake, I think it doesn’t work. But if you change on the merits of making the football club better, and you speak to the fans, you speak to the community, you speak to the people behind the scenes, then I think it’s OK because you can build consensus.”
Cairns agrees that change itself isn’t what supporters oppose, but the way clubs sometimes go about consultation (or lack thereof). “[Recently] the Glazer family, owners of Manchester United, spoke to their fan forums for the first time in 16 years. How can a brand possibly connect if it doesn’t know its audience? A club’s reliance on media income has been at the expense of fan connectivity,” he says. “Ironically, lower tier clubs do this much, much better by necessity. Their economic model is reliant on the fans, and so they work much harder at communication and creativity. Every Premier League club should have a creative director and a customer director (who are both fans) on its board and should be given the same status as ‘established’ roles similar to a commercial director.”
Todd feels that Whippets FC was building on strong foundations laid by other teams in the Super 5 League, such as Romance FC, Wonderkid and Goal Diggers, which pushed things forward in terms of both visuals and cultural purpose. “It kind of instantly made us be like, ‘Well, what do we represent? What are we about? What do we want to say? What’s our message?’” she recalls. “You do become like a collective in a way, and a lot of the teams now have a voice and they try and do things within the team that they maybe wouldn’t necessarily have [done] a few years ago.”
New teams that have joined the league have continued to bring strong identities and creative. Todd believes this is attracting brand interest, which helps to put the league in the spotlight. Yet it’s fruitful for brands too: “We’ve done quite a lot of market research discussions [with] brands, and I think they can learn a lot from what’s going on in the grassroots world. It’s sort of invaluable to them in a way.”
Grassroots clubs have always had to work harder to establish an identity, visual or otherwise. Yet Todd feels that bigger teams are understanding how creativity can be used to connect with supporters, particularly in light of the pandemic, even with small gestures like filling empty stadiums with cardboard cutouts of season ticket holders.
Social media has been another way for the Whippets to illustrate their character and find support, and she believes that bigger clubs are finally starting to seize on the benefits of platforms like Instagram to connect with fans. “It’s a constant stream of communication to the fans,” she says. Meanwhile, including fans in kit launch photoshoots shows how “they’re trying to make it feel like more of an inclusive thing,” she adds. “That still feels quite far removed from where it needs to be I think, but you can see the steps that the clubs are trying to take to encourage the younger fans.” For her, using creativity to show character and connect with people are key tactics when it comes to the primary goal: “I think the main thing is to just encourage the younger generation to play football.”
Illustration by Chester Holm