LARRY RYAN: Soccer may have to earn stripes

Let’s call it Gwinner’s Law. In 1999, marketing guru Kevin Gwinner of Kansas State University proved the phenomenon of image transfer, writes Larry Ryan.

In his research document ‘Event sponsorship as a value creating strategy for brands’, Gwinner convinced us that “perceptions about a brand held in memory” are influenced by events that brand is associated with.

As he held up a mirror to reflected glory, among the relationships Gwinner tested was Camel cigarettes’ backing of the Fifa World Cup. And sure enough, Gwinner documented some bizarre malfunction of human nature which meant people were now more likely to use words such as “exciting”, “energetic”, “thrilling” and “youthful” to describe Camel smokes.

Gwinner doesn’t appear to have returned, a little down the line, to analyse the brand perceptions of disappointed, wheezing 30-a-day men. But then Gwinner was probably being carried shoulder high through the boardrooms of the land by ‘franchise owners’.

To bring things a little more up to date, Sam Thompson of London Metropolitan University reexamined Gwinner’s findings in 2011, focusing on McDonald’s sponsorship of the Olympics.

If Gwinner and sports chiefs were nervous, they had no need to be. Thompson discovered attributes such as “respect”, “honour”, and “prestige” had been transferred to McDonald’s by the deal. Though Thompson didn’t get into how any of these things were still associated with the Olympics.

But if sponsorship had confirmed the Egg McMuffin as the breakfast of champions, there was one indigestible finding. This caper cuts both ways. Or, as Thompson put it: “Negativity associated with the McDonald’s brand was found to be associated with the Olympic Games post-sponsorship.”

Though, all things considered, links with child obesity are probably the least of the Olympics lads’ worries, when it comes to negativity.

Interestingly, the power of Gwinner’s Law was challenged in recent months by adidas.

As lately as last November, boss man Herbert Hainer was hanging on grimly to the company’s lucrative Fifa connections, at a time when even Camel — if they were still allowed at this top, top table — might have been growing anxious about the negative vibes around these chancers.

But Hainer was adamant there would be no image transfer onto the three stripes.

“I’m convinced that the consumers clearly differentiate between us as a company and the brand and what is going on at Fifa.”

Alas, as Louis van Gaal discovered this week, even Hainer’s tolerance has limits.

We can’t be sure what triggered the panic. Perhaps alarm bells went off at HQ in Herzogenaurach when studies associated the three stripes with words such as “boring”, “pedestrian”, “moribund”, “funereal” and “sideways”.

But Herbie, if not yet going bananas, wasn’t taking any more chances, firing a warning shot just five months into a 10-year, €1billion contract with LVG’s boys:

“The current playing style of Man United is not exactly what we want to see.”

A landmark observation, according to Leah Gillooly, lecturer in marketing at Alliance Manchester Business School.

“While there has previously been suspicion and a perception that sponsors are involved in on-pitch matters, this is the first real instance I can recall of a sponsor openly commenting on the playing style of the team,” Gillhooly told Marketing magazine.

Openly, of course, is the key word, though Standard Chartered was quite open about its ambitions on announcing its Liverpool sponsorship in 2011.

“The real power for what Liverpool could do for us, and I think for the English Premier League, is if there was a way they could nurture foreign players from Asia,” said Gavin Laws, the bank’s head of corporate affairs, before outlining further his romantic, multicultural ambitions: “The markets in Asia and the Middle East are so nationalistic, they are very proud of their countries. Matches become huge events. One appearance from a player, say from Dubai in the Premier League, and you’d have the whole of Dubai watching it.”

If there is an awareness that commercial prerogatives influence player recruitment, there has long been a suspicion that Nike’s relationship with Brazil goes a little further, propelling its stars onto an endless global tour of brand-building friendlies.

Last year, the Brazilian Football Federation had to deny, once more, that Nike picks the team for these matches, even if its own reasons for parading Neymar & Co everywhere deviate somewhat from Jules Rimet’s dreams for the internationalisation of his sport.

“If a rock band is not performing with their vocalist, the value will be renegotiated.”

If we have suspected brands like a look at the teamsheet, perhaps it is only now they are becoming keen to scribble a sponsor’s message on the tactics board too. Belated awareness that the age-old phrase “a nice brand of football” was there to be leveraged.

And there may be good reason why the Premier League has become an early target for style counseling.

As we near a point when its 20 clubs, at any time, will be the 20 richest footballing enterprises in the world, it may soon grow inevitable that winning, beyond the necessary avoidance of relegation, becomes something of a sideshow.

After all, no matter how much money you throw at it, there’s only a few prizes to go round. Differentiating yourself by style of play may be more commercially prudent.

Some might suggest Arsenal went down that road years ago, though no memo has yet leaked from an Emirates brainstorming session.

Jurgen Klopp set out that stall on day one at Anfield, making clear his priority was “to develop a recognisable brand of football”.

And club personnel are increasingly ‘on-message’. Sky Sports News this week interviewed the Stoke City groundsman ahead of the Capital One Cup semi-final with Liverpool. It was quickly clear this was a man dedicated to preparing a pitch to suit Mark Hughes’ progressive style of play. The interview must have earned him at least an introductory free punt at owner Peter Coates’ Bet365 operation.

And so we near a day when LVG has to convene a board meeting with head honchos from adidas, Aon, Chevrolet, DHL, Honda, Singha Beer, Thomas Cook, Telecom Malaysia, Marathon Bet, Epson, Paul Smith and the rest of United’s commercial partners before he can field two holding midfielders at home to Villa.

There will doubtless be some resistance within a game where wariness of meddling from the paymasters has been traditional before and since Len Shackleton included a blank chapter in his autobiography, headed The Average Director’s Knowledge Of Football.

The prospect of apparel makers choosing tactics may take us one step further to Jerry Seinfeld’s assertion that sports fans are simply “rooting for laundry”.

And yet, these commercial pressures may actually bring about a curious return of some democracy to football.

The problem, for football, is that big, big business must, on some level, listen to what the punter wants. In a game that has more or less turned its back on the punters, and what they want, this may come as something of an inconvenience.

It may well be that football fans will soon make their presence felt sitting in focus groups rather than stepping through turnstiles.

In a game that’s selling out, call it a 30 pieces of silver lining. Perhaps everyone really can be a winner with Gwinner’s Law.


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