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How Gary Neville and the Class of 92 are building a university – and a brand

Former Manchester United footballers Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes have been busy in the worlds of business and media since retirement. Their latest venture is a university in Manchester – could it be the first step in the creation of a champion brand?

Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes are names better associated with matchdays than marcomms. The five former players have been busy in their years since leaving the game, launching a range of business ventures alongside burgeoning media careers. But while their latest project – a new university in Manchester, christened University Academy 92 (UA92) – marks the group’s first foray into the higher education sector, it also looks to be the first step in the creation of an umbrella brand: the Class of 92.

Athletes leveraging celebrity and legacy to build a business empire is nothing new, though Gary Neville and Giggs have been especially productive, holding 13 and 32 directorships respectively. Their former team Manchester United have themselves been marketing innovators over the years, as the first club to launch a television channel (MUTV now boasts a global viewership of 35m households worldwide), and a list of corporate partners as long as one of David Beckham’s signature free kicks. Current squad member Jesse Lingard even trademarked his own goal celebration earlier this year.

While individual players and teams have built brands on and off the pitch, the creation of a brand that stands for five ex-players is something that's not been attempted before.

With backing from Lancaster University, local government and corporate partners like Microsoft and KPMG, UA92 is designed to be a new kind of university. Its website discards the usual academic language of the higher education sector, declaring itself to be an institution focused on ‘accelerating careers in business, media and sport’. Based a short walk from United’s home ground in Trafford, UA92 is set to take its first students in 2019.

The strategic identity and branding of UA92 has been handled by Truth Creative, an independent agency based less than a mile away from Gary Neville’s offices in the centre of Manchester. Jo Scott, who is managing partner of Truth, says: “We came on board when it was literally a name and turned that into a brand proposition. We helped them onboard their partners and then we were behind the launch. We’ve been working on it for two and a half years.

“The purpose of the brand is it's supposed to be incredibly disruptive, it's supposed to be different, it's supposed to let young people consider university that might not have considered it before. They'll understand that they'll come out of that education with something that's really practical, something that's linked to industry."

Out of all the projects launched by the five, it’s the one most clearly associated with their names. ‘92’ refers to the year that United won the FA Youth Cup, a moment which preceded most of the five’s professional debuts and that has been immortalised in the press, especially since the release of documentary The Class Of 92. Media coverage of Salford City FC, a lower league football club co-owned by the five, has helped solidify their group image as the ‘Class of 92’.

Discussing the Class’s move into higher education, Scott says that they've been operating with a long-term plan since retirement. “They count themselves very lucky to have had the opportunity that Manchester United brought them and they understand that not everybody gets those opportunities. So coupled with the fact that they all love Manchester, they wanted to invest something back.”

While each of the Class are involved with UA92, Scott is clear that Gary Neville has been the driving force. She says that the project grew out of existing partnerships he’d pursued with local education institutions. “He felt as though, having done some work with universities in the area, that students weren't as prepared for the workplace as they should be.”

His intentions for UA92 echo the language of startups and tech companies. “The education sector is a well-established thing. It's not seen massive change ever, really,” says Scott.

“He wanted to disrupt that. While the traditional university places academic teaching at its core, he wanted to place personal development at its core. [UA92] is focused on giving a return on investment, giving students all the tools they needed socially, psychologically, as well as academically as well. That's why it looks different and behaves differently.”

Gary Neville has been “heavily involved” with the development of UA92, and it shows. With a primary palette of red and black, its focus on ‘greatness’ and the prominence of its player backers, UA92’s branding echoes United’s.

Scott says the reference “is probably obvious, but it’s also about confidence. Red is very purposeful. It seemed appropriate to embrace that”. Truth also embraced the freedom of creating an institution from scratch, says Scott. “What’s lovely about UA92 is that we don’t have any heritage. It’s a way of communicating a different kind of approach to education.”

Asked about how Neville and his former teammates might develop their legacy into a wider brand, Scott says: “We'd love to get our hands on the Class of 92 brand – it would be absolutely wonderful to do that – because I think that if you're carrying that equity across, then obviously you want to trade on that a little bit.”

While UA92 progresses the Class are busy with a host of individual projects, from cafe chains to charities. Gary Neville and Giggs are occupied with the St Michael’s development, a huge construction project set to reshape Manchester’s skyline.

In the bowels of Companies House however, there is a clue pointing to the group’s future intentions. In 2012, they registered a company called Class of 92 Ltd. Their co-director? That other master of football and advertising, David Beckham.

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