United Who? Manchester United's underlying brand problem

Preface: I am a huge fan of Premier League Football. If you love the game, you may find this interesting, if not you should read one of our other academic pieces. (And also, I am a Chelsea fan, and it is easier to talk ‘objectively’ about a club I have less affection for.)

 

For a few years now, there has been a lot of talk about the impact of the money flowing into the Premier League and the increasing number of clubs with foreign owners. I thought it would be interesting to examine this through the lens of brand strategy. Let’s talk about Manchester United.

I find it hard to remain in the Man U hate camp, simply because I find it hard to have strong feelings towards a club or brand that doesn't stand for anything.

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When leaders leave a void in vision, values, leadership, and direction, your team will find ways to fill it with decisions that may or may not be on brand.

I was introduced to the Premier League at the beginning of the golden era of Sir Alex Ferguson. The moment that sealed my love for the game was watching David Beckham score his famous goal from the halfway line against Wimbledon.

Like many of my friends who didn't grow up in the UK, we had a choice of which club to support since we had no geographic, family, or community connection. There were two camps, those who loved Man U and those who hated them. (I started in the former and somehow ended in the later, that is a story for another time.)

Manchester United The Icon

Manchester United was an icon of a club, it was the brand synonymous with the Premier League and with success, akin to Ferrari and Formula One. They stood for something, they had a swagger about them, and at the end of the day, they were Sir Alex Ferguson's team. To me they stood for elegance, creativity, discipline, and resilience, bending games to their will effortlessly.

That identity and brand continued to flourish even after the club was acquired by the Glazer family, where Ferguson won a further 5 league titles. Even with resentment growing towards the owners, their continued success on the pitch made them even more “Man U.”

In 2013, Sir Alex Ferguson retired after 26 years and everything changed, fast. Fast forward to 2019, after cycling through 5 managers and spending half a billion dollars on new recruits, they can’t seem to remember how to win. Manchester United has lost its identity.

 

What happened to their identity?

An organization can often carry on the status quo for months, sometimes even years, without much sign of stress while the foundation erodes from the inside out.

In short, they have been suffering from the Founder's Syndrome, a classic startup problem that companies face during growth, M&As, and other transitions. The charisma and passion of the founder casts a long shadow following their absence, often taking with them clear vision, values, leadership, and direction. An organization can often carry on the status quo for months, sometimes even years, without much sign of stress while the foundation erodes from the inside out.

When leaders leave a void in vision, values, leadership, and direction, their team will find ways to fill it with decisions that may or may not be “on brand.” The most damage is done when decisions are made reactively without any coordination. When enough such decisions are made, the cracks start to appear.

Many will say that the writing has been on the wall for Manchester United. They tried to replace their 'founder' with a 'like-for-like' replacement, expecting that an outside hire with less experience could carry on his legacy and command a similar level of respect, while the rest of the organization continued to be reshuffled. They fired the replacement less than a year into his appointment and went on trying to fill the void with bigger and bigger names, all falling victim to that same expectation.

Now What for United?

Commercially, Manchester United is thriving, still banking on Ferguson's success, signing on partners from car companies to mattress firms. As more time passes, how long can they continue to carry on without asking themselves, "Who are we? What does Manchester United stand for?" They need to rediscover the reason for their existence.

In this day and age with megaclubs on the rise, international supporters like myself are spoiled for choice. Manchester United has to learn from the the great brands and figure out what they are asking people to buy into.

I find it hard to remain in the Man U hate camp, simply because I find it hard to have strong feelings towards a club or brand that doesn't stand for anything.

Tino Chow