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What Globally Ambitious Brands Can Learn From Manchester United's Marketing Playbook

Lessons from soccer's savvy ambassadors

Team captain Wayne Rooney leads Manchester United onto the field in four U.S. cities later this month for a series of exhibition matches against American and international competition. Over the past 60 years, the Red Devils have undertaken countless excursions like this, which rank among the iconic English Premier League team's most successful and frequently copied promotional strategies.

Man U "pioneered international tours over the summer, particularly in Asia and markets such as South Africa," growing its fan base outside England and broadening the team's appeal for potential sponsors, Sue Bridgewater, professor of sports management and marketing at the University of Liverpool Management School, points out.

These days, Man U isn't the only club playing friendly matches in distant lands. Squads from U.S.-based Major League Soccer started doing so about a decade ago, when David Beckham, then the game's biggest draw, joined the Los Angeles Galaxy. "Signing him gave us international credibility," says Galaxy president Chris Klein, "and we took a lesson from Man U" on how to establish a global footprint.

 

In February, the Galaxy undertook a pre-season tour that gave Irish fans a chance to see team captain Robbie Keane play in his hometown of Dublin. The visit generated considerable publicity, with highlights including an audience with Irish President Michael Higgins. "It was a great story for soccer and for Ireland," says Klein. "We reaped great benefits in terms of our reach." The goal is to create new Galaxy supporters who will follow the team (or Keane's U.S. exploits, at any rate) via TV and interactive media, and, by extension, form a wider audience for sponsor messages.

This trend transcends soccer. Since 2007, the National Football League has staged some regular-season games in London's Wembley Stadium (NFL teams began playing pre-season overseas in the mid-'80s). Teams from Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association have also increasingly competed outside North America to promote their brands and sow the seeds of fandom.

International matchups are just one tactic from the Man U marketing playbook. Through its storied history, the franchise has tried out numerous promotional techniques, offering lucrative lessons for others. More than a few pro teams and leagues have adopted its strategies. That makes sense, experts say, as Man U's marketing prowess has been a key factor in its success, helping it become the first soccer club to achieve a value of $1 billion. And as a money-generating juggernaut, the Red Devils show no sign of dropping the ball.

Connection is the goaaaal! 

Whether at home or abroad, it all boils down to connecting with fans, and keeping them on board over the long haul. That is no easy task given today's media makeup. "The earlier you get introduced to a spectator sport, the more you'll engage and the more value you'll create over time," says Howard Handler, CMO of MLS and a Clio Sports juror. For an established team like Man U, of course, its following grows organically across generations. But as the Red Devils have devised innovative ways to build engagement beyond the walls of Old Trafford Stadium, they have strengthened their ties with existing fans and attracted new ones, making the club an even more valuable partner for brands.

"Manchester United were early adopters of affinity marketing approaches," Bridgewater says, noting its branded credit card and mobile phone. What's more, "they were early into and made good use of social media. They continue to innovate in social media and the ways in which these are used."

 

While many franchises have an impressive social presence, Man U's global reach is formidable. It boasts more than 65 million Facebook fans and 5.4 million Twitter followers, while the website ManUtd.com attracts more than 5 million unique visitors per month. "We benchmark ourselves against the best businesses globally, not simply those in sports," says Man U commercial director Jamie Reigle. "We focus on the quality of the content and tailor it by platform."

In this country, MLS has built an impressive showing, with 1.6 million Facebook fans and more than 800,000 Twitter followers. Like Man U, MLS has its own content engine, with a distinctly American flavor. Its content includes a 12-minute, magazine-style video piece on Sporting KC's Dom Dwyer and U.S. Women's National Team star Sydney Leroux, the power couple that "found love through soccer." Posted June 19, the video has amassed nearly 2 million views. Naturally, social outreach carries through to the club level. New York City F.C., which debuted in the MLS this year, makes a point of keeping lines of communication open to fans via City Voice, its own digital community.

As a strong digital presence can yield an enormous amount of highly prized data, Man U has also been aggressive on that score. Matt Scammell, who guides global sponsorship sales for the team, has vowed to turn each and every fan into an "addressable individual" by parsing emails and other communications to extract pertinent data, letting Man U and its partners tailor promotional pitches. (Some advise caution. "Fans must be treated first and foremost as customers, not just potentially monetizable data points," notes David Carter, principal of The Sports Business Group and executive director of the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute. "They will be turned off by any outreach that seems either inauthentic or viewed as a mere money grab.")

Man U was also the first soccer club to launch a dedicated TV platform. MUTV debuted in 1997, and has grown to carry match highlights, magazine programs and analytical pieces about the team on a 24/7 basis. The service, with 100,000 subscribers in the U.K. alone, is available in 94 markets worldwide.

Tubular dreams

MLS isn't ready to launch its own TV service—yet. Still, experts agree that soccer, the world's most popular team sport, is no longer just a niche attraction here. Consider that there are nearly 80 million adult soccer fans in the U.S., a 34 percent increase since 2010, and that the growth of the game's popularity here has outpaced all other sports over the past decade.

Momentum has been driven by the appearances of the U.S. Men's and Women's National Teams in FIFA World Cup competition; the exposure of American fans to global soccer through franchise tours, digital media and domestic broadcast deals (NBC's three-year, $250 million Premier League pact runs through 2016); and the raising of MLS's profile. (Now in its 20th season, the league averaged about 19,150 fans per game last year, an all-time high. In fact, it placed third among U.S. sports leagues, behind the NFL and MLB, and ahead of the NBA and NHL.)

"Soccer's interest has never been higher with lifelong or casual fans," notes Pattie Falch, brand director, sponsorships and events at Heineken USA. "It is popular with our target consumers—millennial males and Hispanic Americans—and this growth shows no signs of slowing down."

To reach this young, diverse and rapidly expanding fan base, Heineken inked a five-year, $50 million pact last October to become the official beer of Major League Soccer. And Heineken now has a larger stage to pitch from, after MLS signed an eight-year, $720 million TV deal with ESPN, Fox and Univision, roughly quadrupling its annual broadcast revenue to $90 million (invaluable for a league losing $100 million annually, according to some reports).

That it could strike such a deal "is certainly a vote of confidence for MLS and soccer in the U.S.," says John Kristick, global CEO at WPP-owned sports marketing firm ESP Properties. The key for MLS, Kristick says, is to keep building scale and establish fan traditions along the lines of the clubs that trample the pitches in Europe and South America.

Of course, such clubs "all have old, ingrained traditions and fan bases that stretch back decades—in some cases, over 100 years," says George Quraishi, editor and publisher of Howler, a leading soccer publication. "What drives soccer fans is a sense of history and lore. You can't rush that, you can't fake that."

CMO Handler says the league is determined to foster that kind of passion among U.S. fans. He notes that the sport here is still in its infancy, "fueled by millennials who see this as a blank canvas that they're able to fill in with their rituals, their songs, their artwork."

One important way MLS stokes the movement is by requiring teams to build state-of-the-art stadiums. Facilities in Kansas City, Portland, Ore., and San Jose, Calif., are prime examples. The league's current ad campaign, "Unstoppable," from the agency The Brooklyn Brothers, reflects MLS' fan culture. "Your ability to touch and feel and be part of these clubs in your local community is a very different situation than if you're a Liverpool fan or a Valencia [C.F.] fan," says Handler.

Extra time for global

As MLS teams gain critical mass here and overseas, the league can attempt to emulate Man U's tactics in another key area. "Recognizing their global appeal, they adopted a geo-fenced model to selling sponsorships on a category-by-category level," says Simon Wardle, chief strategy officer at sports and entertainment marketing firm Octagon. Man U's Reigle explains: "Where we don't have a global partner, usually by choice, we segment the market regionally. In soft drinks, we have a partnership with Wahaha in China, Pepsi in Southeast Asia and Kagome in Japan. The same is true for tires, financial services and personal care."

Manchester United captain Wayne Rooney will lead the club onto the field in four U.S. cities this month.

The team does have a global auto sponsor, in 2012 inking a seven-year, $560 million deal with General Motors' Chevrolet, putting its logo on jerseys, and generating some controversy. GM canned marketing chief Joel Ewanick at least partly owing to friction over the huge contract. "The fact that the CMO lost his post starkly highlighted the post-recession nature of sponsorship," says Simon Chadwick, professor of sports business strategy and marketing at Coventry University. "It is no longer the champagne and strawberries hospitality, networking and awareness-raising medium it once was. Now it is driven by the need for deals to be underpinned by a clear, tangible business case."

The case is being made. GM global CMO Tim Mahoney has said the deal "represents great exposure," while ESP's Kristick takes the long view. "In many ways, Man U is the 'world's club'—with close to 700 million fans," he notes. "With more than half from the enticing Asian market, it's the ideal platform for a brand like Chevrolet. They are looking at emerging markets for growth, and they know football is the path to achieve this. Man U gives them immediate credibility and a consistent platform to leverage."

This story first appeared in the July 6 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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