23 October 2000
AUK company with a massive global presence, an instantly recognised name and the sort of relationship with its customers that's to die for, is understood to have appointed its first advertising agency.
Cheetham Bell, one of the North's biggest agencies, is believed to have picked up this dream multimillion-pound account after building up a relationship with the company's chief executive officer and group marketing director while they held senior roles at another Cheetham Bell client.
Of course, such agency wins happen every week, but it is the fact that the company is Manchester United FC that makes this deal significant and of relevance to readers of The Lawyer and not just to those who follow the game. United (the abbreviated name highlighting the huge recognition factor) hardly needs to advertise itself. Aside from the UK's most successful club Liverpool FC, there can be few brands more famous, nor tickets more sought after. So why is the company looking to pay good money to sell itself?
The reason is twofold. United is not looking to establish a new audience or customer base; rather, it is looking to consolidate its fans and friends, and deepen their relationship with, and loyalty to, the brand. And, of course, in a convergent media world, it is looking to strengthen that relationship and carry it across into new media, new technologies and new markets.
Nobody knows what that new landscape will be like or what pitfalls it may contain, but any market player looking to explore that territory - and there are very few that are not - know the best chance of success lies with carrying over established customers, business, and above all relationships. United has not been slow off the mark in exploiting new opportunities, whether it is new TV deals, mobile phone tie-ups or interactive media. But as it spreads its name and position across an admittedly converging but still very diverse media world, it knows it must hang on to and push what are its core values and unique selling proposition (USP).
This is the job of the marketing team at the company, but the fact that United is appointing an outside agency shows not only that it is expecting to advertise as well as simply constructing the brand, but also that it is looking for an external perspective. Giant football clubs and giant law firms have more than a few things in common: they have a core business; a global reach; a core customer base; a brand recognition and loyalty among those customers; and they are in markets that are rapidly changing, offering unheard-of opportunities, but also potential pitfalls. Premier League teams know they have their season ticket holders, while law firms have clients who would not dream of taking their latest takeover to a rival, any more than a United supporter would think of buying a seat at the Kop.
Similarly, when a firm looks at expanding abroad, it knows it can depend on its loyal supporters to be waiting for the doors of its new office to open. And as firms launch into virtual dealing rooms, one-stop shops, consultancy and other areas, they believe their success as traditional boardroom law firms will carry them forward. Although it would be outrageous to suggest that such an attitude could ever drift into arrogance, as global expansion, like media expansion, accelerates, the danger of brand dilution, customer confusion and even cynicism increases.
Manchester United is the world's richest club. It is also one of the smartest. Its decision to advertise with the aid of experts indicates it knows how important its heritage is and how valuable its customer base will be in the future. A firm that is looking at global or business expansion should similarly be looking for ways to ensure that its name, brand and core USP remains protected, developed and pushed effectively into the market.