Manchester United's product is diminishing its brand

The brain on Man United

The global appeal of Manchester United Football Club is a brand promise of exciting, dramatic attacking football, led by some of the world’s best players and biggest personalities. A lineage that stretches from George Best through to Eric Cantona, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo, the brand stands for success and style, steeped in a rich history of attacking football right to the final whistle.

It’s this appeal, this history, which has allowed the brand to grow a global fan base it estimates at about 1 in every 11 people on earth. Few other sports clubs match the commercial value this has reaped for the team, and a geo-fenced sponsorship strategy — one that sells sponsor deals based on geographic market — has meant United’s revenue growth has exploded over the last few years. They’ve signed world record shirt sponsorships with Adidas (10 years, £750M) and Chevrolet ($559M, 7 years).

But while this may impress Wall Street, United’s fans are worried. The underlying product — the team on the pitch — is terrible. Following the worst ever Premier League season under David Moyes, the initial excitement around the appointment of Louis Van Gaal has disappeared. A string of 0–0 draws and uninspired performances — not to mention the team’s recent group-stage Champions League exit — has resulted in mutinous calls at Old Trafford, the fabled home grounds of the Red Devils. It has also led some United greats — Paul Scholes, Peter Schmeichel and Rio Ferdinand, among others — to publicly criticize the team and the manager Van Gaal.

As a brand, this matters. These former players have enormous influence in the hearts and minds of supporters. They were once the face of Manchester United, embodying the spirit of the brand, and many are still brand ambassadors. Their criticism is akin to the Coca Cola Polar Bear popping open that fabled bottle, taking a sip and spitting it right back out. In front of millions of people.

Brainsights’ own research corroborates that the brand is slipping. We recently screened a 30s Chevrolet ad, which featured the evolution of the Manchester United kit, among 75 minutes of video content — ads and entertainment — for over 500 Canadian millennials. While the audience viewed the content, we measured their brain activity every 2 milliseconds, measuring levels of Attention, Emotional Connection and Encoding to Memory, and comparing it against more than 80 content segments also screened.

The results were miserable. The spot came second-to-last in measures of neural engagement (a combination of Attention, Connection and Encoding) of the 80+ content segments, which included a range of Youtube videos, beer ads and public service announcements.

Digging into the data and examining the spot at a second-by-second level, there are two interrelated explanations for this, but neither is favourable for Manchester United. First, the ad itself isn’t great. (If it were, of course, it would have ranked much higher.) Secondly, the brand is weakened — when the players and brand are featured in the spot, the neural response is tepid.

Now, this is one spot, which is hardly an exhaustive brand analysis. But the results are discouraging for the brand for three reasons.

First, there’s the risk of property devaluation. By selling associations to its brand, Manchester United opens itself up to risks of devaluing it through sponsor activation. Property owners attempt to mitigate these risks contractually, but as the Chevy spot shows, it’s not so easily enforced. Activate the sponsorship with a poor ad, and the risk is that the property — the Manchester United brand — is further devalued in the process.

Secondly, the promise of a hot brand property is that it can carry the engagement for the sponsor (otherwise, why would the sponsor bother?) So one would expect that, though the spot isn’t great, it would perform better than the bottom 3% of ads due to the supposed power of the Manchester United brand and its stable of talent. That simply wasn’t the case, and that spells trouble for United.

Finally, this comes at a time when Manchester United is facing ever-stiffer brand competition. The growth of football in America and China, and the fact that these “new” fans aren’t necessarily predisposed to Manchester United or Liverpool as in the past, means that Manchester United can hardly afford to have its product — and brand promise — denigrated. This is especially the case when Manchester City, their fierce cross-town rivals, is making in-roads into China.

GM executives cite access to Manchester United’s massive fanbase in Asia as a driver of their sponsorship. But break the audience demographics down to investigate response by ethnicity and the picture isn’t any rosier (see video).

Analyzing the neural response on a second-by-second basis by Caucasians versus non-Caucasians (roughly 50/50 split for this study), and the spot performs even worse on non-Caucasians. This would include those of non-Asian descent (Latino, African, etc), but the majority of non-Caucasians in this instance are of Asian descent. This shouldn’t sit well with General Motors.

So where does this leave Manchester United and its sponsors?

In the interim, a more effective way to evaluate sponsorship and sponsorship activation — through, for example, bio-metric, neurological and implicit measurement that augments the reach and social media engagement presently used — would be sensible. This would ensure the strengths of sponsor and property are being properly leveraged for mutual benefit.

But the only sustainable way forward is to improve the on-field product. Only by doing so can Manchester United legitimately defend the enormous sums it commands for sponsorship, and ensure it’s delivering on its brand promise.