The Drum's Cameron Clarke heads to the Etihad Stadium to catch up with Manchester City’s head of marketing, Julian Pate, and head of digital, Richard Ayres, who explain how they are busy establishing the club as an entertainment brand to rival Disney and Red Bull, rather than just another football team, and the perilous task of growing the club’s fanbase without alienating loyal local fans.
Ask Manchester City fans who the club’s challengers are this season and they will probably reel off names such as Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea. Ask the same question of City’s head of marketing, Julian Pate, and you’re presented with a very different list of rivals.
“We don’t see the competition as just football clubs,” Pate tells The Drum when we meet at the club‘s Etihad Stadium. “We see ourselves as an entertainment brand in many ways.
“It’s about trying to put ourselves in that group and asking: What would Disney do in this situation? What would Red Bull do? What would Apple do?
“We are very keen that we try to do things first; we try to innovate, we try to be thought leaders in the football space - but not just in the football space.”
It is this attitude that has seen the club try a wealth of experimental digital and marketing initiatives over the last 12 months.
These include putting a fly-on-the-wall camera inside the players’ tunnel for fans to watch online, broadcasting supporters’ tweets on the big screens inside the stadium and adding augmented reality to season tickets.City also signed high-profile content deals with YouTube and EA.
But though the club has shown a willingness to experiment, everything that rolls out of its marketing department is carefully considered and must now pass the scrutiny of what Pate describes as the ‘lens test’.
Since joining the club in April 2011, Pate has been drawing up a ‘brand framework’ which has now been completed and will soon be turned into a brand book to be handed to potential suppliers. It decrees that products or campaigns carrying City’s name must be original, reflect the club’s sense of community and exude a passion for football. It is through these filters that Pate applies the lens test.
And this is the reason there will never be any repeat of the controversial ‘Welcome to Manchester’ Carlos Tevez poster of three years ago - a poster that so incensed Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson that he dubbed City the ‘noisy neighbours’.
“We haven’t had that framework previously, so if you took the Tevez poster and put the lens over it would be way off. It wouldn’t fit at all. So that gives you an indication of how the brand has been reformed.”
The reformation has taken place since the club was bought by Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2008 and subsequently bankrolled to the tune of £1bn.
This moneybags backdrop makes for a surprising admission when The Drum sits down with City’s head of digital, Richard Ayres.
“This is one of the smallest, if not the smallest, content budgets I’ve ever worked with,” he tells us.
“Everybody always assumes that we must be rolling in it, but then I point out that the money goes towards football and not the digital team.”
Instead, Ayres pitches ideas to the moneymen, who effectively act as a venture capital vehicle. He has “nine or 10” products lined-up for this year but they are closely guarded secrets for the time being.
One risky-sounding idea he does reveal, however, is pulling players’ tweets into their profile pages on the City website. Isn’t this a bit dangerous given how many footballers have put their foot in it online?
“We have a good relationship with the players,” Ayres says. “I have absolutely no doubt, and it would be nice to put that on record, that it’ll go wrong. Either a tweet will get through the filters, or a player will say something that perhaps isn’t as diplomatic as it might be. But the reality is they are saying it anyway on the internet. They will learn.”
As City becomes more successful on the pitch, Pate and Ayres have the task of growing the club‘s fanbase off it. Pate says the club is ambitions to establish its brand in the Middle East, South East Asia and the US. Ayres says he has a two-year target to “build a market leading capability to engage a global fanbase”.
The challenge, however, is finding a way to grow this overseas fanbase in a way that doesn’t alienate the loyal local fans who have supported the club through troubled times in the past and have long mocked their rivals, Manchester United, for having a preponderance of glory-hunting supporters. As Ayres puts it: “You have to do that in a way that doesn’t lose the heart.”
Ayres does not call himself a football fan, but he has been made acutely aware of what it means to be a true Blue.
“We had an issue at the beginning of last year when I asked one of my guys to write a piece explaining the history of City and the FA Cup. Unfortunately, when he put it on our website he called it a Bluffer’s Guide. What he meant was a Beginner’s Guide, but of course everybody then started to say: ‘You want people to pretend to be City fans’. The reaction was visceral and immediate. It was our intention to explain to people about the club rather than courting glory hunters.
“You would hope that we are going to grow significantly in terms of our fanbase. But you’ve got to grow in the right way. Rather than taking our brand and trying to dilute it around the world, it’s more an approach of bringing the world in towards the experience that’s here.”
How the club attempts to do that will become clear over the next year. “It really does feel like 2011 has been getting some strategy in place and trying some stuff," Ayres says. “2012 is the one where we really start building it, and start rolling out the products and engaging the fans.”