Brand City: Selling Manchester In America

Garry Cook, CEO of Manchester City, has been oft-lampooned by fans and the press (deservedly enough) for some well-publicised blunders, such as welcoming Uwe Rosler into the Manchester United Hall of Fame. Oops.

Many have been surprised Cook has kept his job despite several public gaffes, and indeed, many were surprised when he kept his job to begin with following the takeover of Manchester City by the Abu Dhabi group in 2008: Cook had been headhunted for his role by the previous owner, Thaksin Shinawatra (who he later regretted praising), and it seemed unlikely he would remain long in his role under new ownership, perceived by many to be an embarrassment and a poor man’s Peter Kenyon.

But Cook is still around. It’s clear that, for all his missteps and disregard for the traditions of English football, his global vision for branding City worldwide matches that of the club’s new owners, and City are implementing a smarter marketing strategy than just the age-old push to sell more gear in Asia.

Cook’s previous role was heading up Nike’s “Brand Jordan”, and when he was hired by Man City the word was — true or not — that Jordan himself had asked Cook not to leave the company. His amazing stream of gaffes aside, and armed with a massive war chest, Cook has turned around the marketing of City very much in the manner of a Nike campaign: like it or not (I know some City fans will be puking in their mouths), “Brand City” is now a credible global proposition.

To begin with, City have transformed their online presence. They were quick to jump right on the social media bandwagon: their Facebook page has an impressive 120,771 fans, and is high on “interactivity” with its users, a leg-up on  big clubs in the Premier League: Tottenham Hotspur’s Facebook page, for example, has no recent updates, while Aston Villa only have 16,146 fans — though they’re still a long way behind Manchester United in global awareness, of course, as over a million fans follow United’s page, launched just two weeks ago.

City’s relaunched website, as we’ve commented before, was built at considerable expense and is the best in Britain. Importantly, their strategy is to use online media to engage fans in the club: for example, their “My First City Game” campaign, with its own dedicated website at www.myfirstcitygame.com

My First City Game Manchester City

This is slick marketing: decades of City history neatly branded with Etihad Airways sponsorship.

Overseas, their aim is to spread their brand by trying to show they do more than sell replica shirts and play the odd friendly, as the strategy surrounding their current US tour shows. The Sports Business Journal this week reported on City’s investment in American youth development, an endeavour that received plenty of press on both sides of the Atlantic to give credibility to the idea the club has a greater purpose to its overseas efforts than raking in fistfuls of dollars:

“There’s a long history of foreign teams expressing interest in the U.S., but candidly, there’s been little to show for it,” said Jeff L’Hote, founder of LFC International, a soccer consultancy. “To gain fans, you have to leave something behind between tour appearances. Chelsea’s been able to do that by linking to youth clubs, and for Man City something similar has to happen.”

The club hopes to overcome that by doing more than playing friendlies. In addition to paying to construct the soccer field at Lexington Academy in Harlem, it signed a three-year partnership with New York’s Downtown United Soccer Club that will see Man City assist with camps for inner-city youth.

“Coming here and playing exhibition games and walking away is not a sustainable model,” Cook said. “People see through that. You have to connect locally and you have to connect locally through youth development and the community.”

City’s online presence matches in this attempt to make their global brand locally-relevant: they have launched a specific version of their website just for US users, www.mcfc.com, hiring a content writer to tailor content for a US-audience. According to the Sports Business Journal, the site already receives over 10,000 daily visitors from the US.

Blue Moon, New York, Manchester City

In terms of setting up Man City as a global brand with resonance, like it or not, Garry Cook might just not be a fool after all.

8 thoughts on “Brand City: Selling Manchester In America

  1. Tobias Funke

    Well, given that over here in the states the kind of asshole that roots for Manchester United are the same kind of asshole that roots for the Yankees/Cowboys/Lakers. With that being said, City with their endless fortunes, will appeal to the glory hunting fan who just wants to watch a team win games/trophies and would rather not bother themselves with the whole “history” thing. Sadly, it seems that Chelsea have already snapped up most of the American glory hunting soccer watchers so City should and will have a tough time breaking into the US market.

  2. Jonathan

    I don’t think its just City fans that want to puke in their own mouths at the term ‘Brand City.’ Pass me that sick bowl.

  3. Chad

    “Over here in the states the kind of asshole that roots for Manchester United are the same kind of asshole that roots for the Yankees/Cowboys/Lakers”?

    Wow. I’ve lived in the States for a couple years now and I don’t follow baseball that much, but everyone seems to liken Manchester United fans to Yankee fans, and the club is derided for buying any player they want, are the evil empire, etc.

    United have been a famous club long before they were a successful one. Even while they were in the 2nd division, they boasted some of the largest support in Britain. Obviously with success comes money and more fame and of course, so-called “glory hunter” fans. As you pointed out, Chelsea seem to be big here because of all those type of fans.

    Obviously the more successful clubs will pick up the most supporters, and it’s easy to dismiss any new fan as a glory hunter. I’m as annoyed as you are of people who blindly follow a team because they’re currently at the top of the table. But even if a few of these fair-weathered fans become hardcore supporters and follow the club for years to come, it’s a win for soccer in the US.

  4. Gary

    I’m going to give a rare bit of praise here for Garry Cook. For all the issues around the idea of a Brand City, which is something that is a depressing part of football and one which I, personally, detest, I’ve always been very impressed with Manchester City’s online offering. They seem to have a reasonably good idea in how to engage and retain their fanbase onine, which is impressive for any brand. As somebody whose day job is in this area, you have to give credit where credit’s due, even if there’s other aspects of the ‘project’ that leaves me feeling very uncomfortable.

  5. Tom Dunmore Post author

    Gary — I’d say that about sums up my feelings on it, too. It was awkward writing this piece in that sense. But I’d say, if you are going to try and sell your club this way, engaging them in some of the ways City have done (like their “My First City Game” campaign) is the right way to do it, compared to some of the alternatives, anyway. And it’s been done very, very smartly.