Marketing the world’s biggest club

by Boris Gligorevic

Manchester United is in town, and they’re rolling out quite a show.  A couple of open training sessions, a book signing with Rio Ferdinand and there was a lunch with David Moyes and legends of the club. Another powerful Manchester United man spoke to an audience of 300 yesterday, albeit with less fanfare.

Manchester United is a global brand, not just a football club.  So it was appropriate that Manchester United’s Head of Marketing, Jonathan Rigby, joined the United team in Sydney and addressed the faithful members of Australia’s marketing and advertising community, gathered together in the Ivy Ballroom.

I’d arrived at the function ahead of kickoff and had seen Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Bryan Robson and Denis Irwin being given a tour around The Ivy.  I was awestruck – well, that’s an understatement.  This was a club who I’ve followed since I was a little kid for simple reason of seeing Eric Cantona on TV.

After some mingling and networking – and a brief appearance by the EPL trophy – we were informed that the entrée would soon be served and Jonathan Rigby would be on stage.  After a brief introduction from the event’s MC, Rigby began by describing the overwhelming reception the club has been given since arriving in Sydney.

Rigby then moved on to talking about Manchester United, the brand, the fans and the club’s global appeal.  The mantra that the marketing department follows is Being Closer.  He disclosed that the marketing team’s principle aim was to bring the club closer to its fans, not only locally but also globally. Out of the club’s 659 million fans globally, 0.1% of the club’s fans actually come from Manchester or England while the Asia-Pacific region accounts for 50% of the club’s fans.

His title might be Head of Marketing, but Rigby views himself more as a custodian of the Manchester United brand; protecting it while ensuring that the club remains successful.  It’s a cycle of players, which leads to fans, which leads to revenue, which leads to purchases of talented players, which leads to more fans…all of which is required to sustain on-field success.  This cycle is driven by commercial growth.

The club has 34 million and 37 million fans in North and South America respectively, while in the Middle East and Africa, there are 173 million fans.  90 million Europeans consider themselves fans and Asia contains 325 million of the club’s fans.  Huge numbers that illustrate the reach that Manchester United has globally.

But how does the club have a meaningful connection with 659 million fans globally?  Rigby quoted Sir Matt Busby: “Never forget we’re going on the pitch to entertain.”  So, it starts with the players.  Most of those millions of fans will only ever see Manchester United play on television – they’re unlikely to make the pilgrimage to Old Trafford.

United achieves its popularity thanks to its broadcast reach via the popularity of the EPL and the club’s own media.  The club reaches 1.16 billion households globally, per season.  On match day, they reach 103 million households worldwide.  Incredible figures!  Through their MUTV channel, they can be viewed in 61 million households in 56 countries across 5 continents.

Rigby then moved to talk about United’s reach via mobile partners.  When Vodafone ended its sponsorship and association with the club, the marketing team looked at how they would reach the global fan base.  One of the ideas revolved around having mobile partners in different parts of the world, whether a national company or a regional operator.  United now has something like 47 mobile partner worldwide, many in Africa and Asia.

Another way for the club to engage with its fans is via United’s social media presence on Twitter and Facebook and the club’s website. The club arrived late on the Twitter scene, only 8 days prior to Rigby’s presentation.  In that time, they had already amassed 500,000 followers.  The club’s website is available in 7 different languages.

He delved further into their social media figures.  United has the fastest growing sports site on Facebook, currently with 34 million likes.  Rigby stated that even though FC Barcelona and Real Madrid have more followers than they do (43,500,000 likes and 39,600,000 likes approximately), Manchester United is still the most talked about club on Facebook.  He produced data that showed that Manchester United is talked about more than twice as much as Real Madrid and FC Barcelona.  Phenomenal!

Manchester United’s Head of Marketing, Jonathan Rigby, addresses the throng. The fake candles lent the event a reverent, churchy atmosphere.

Now, hold onto your hats: Manchester United doesn’t engage in any paid advertising.   Rigby used their Facebook page as example.  The agreement they have with Facebook makes sure that there are no sponsor clashes between Facebook and Manchester United.  Further, the club makes sure that Facebook puts no paid advertisements or advertisement links on their page.  Additionally, the club doesn’t push their own merchandise via their Facebook page.

Sticking with their Facebook page, Rigby focused on the club’s 34 million Facebook fans.  It’s all well and good to have 34 million people on Facebook following the club, but how does the club turn those people into marketable numbers?  The answer: value exchange.

The marketing department of Manchester United focuses on giving the fans a value exchange and in turn hopes that  results in growth in fan numbers, match day visits, tours and purchasing of merchandise.  So the club focuses on what it can provide via its media platforms.  United focus on a range of things to satisfy and attract new fans, keeping in line with the value exchange:

  • behind the scenes access
  • first to hear club news
  • money-can’t-buy prizes
  • fair opportunity exchange with fans
  • feel part of the team

Official supporters clubs also form a part of the value exchange.  Rigby said that the club itself doesn’t impose rules on how an official supporters club should run, rather they let them manage themselves.  They feel that given the club’s history and heritage, fans know how to run an effective supporters club.  Obviously the club gives its stamp of approval as to who gets to be an official supporters club of Manchester United and once this happens, the official supporters club is given their own personal Relationship Manager. The Relationship Manager is the supporters club’s principal liaison point, for example organising any prizes for competitions run by the supporters club, or organising “meet and greets” should the supporters club visit Old Trafford.  It just adds to the sense of belonging to the club.

Another key area was their global fan panel.  It is a great tool for the club as it gives them direct access to their fans.  Through these panels they are able to identify what fans want to see, what they want improved and so on.

When establishing new sponsors, the club will meet personally with the organisation.  During these meetings, United will establish what the organisation can offer the club and what the club can offer the organisation in return.  From here the club then decides whether it is an appropriate sponsorship or not.

But the club doesn’t view it as a sponsorship, per se.  It views its sponsorships as partnerships.  It comes down to that value exchange; what the sponsor offers United and what United offers in return.  Once this partnership is established the club wants to make sure that the partnership is renewed, thereby establishing a long lasting partnership.  It’s as much as making the sponsor (partner) of the club feel like a part of the club as the organisation makes United feel like a part of them.

Nike, the club’s official kit supplier, had partnered with United to provide the fans with a view into how the players approach pre-season.  Nike also did this with Juventus, Arsenal and FC Barcelona.  Same content, same site.  The views Manchester United’s videos received were 7 times more than what Juventus received and 11 times more than what Arsenal received.

Rigby then detailed some statistics about the moment when Sir Alex Ferguson retired.  Within the first hours of Ferguson’s retirement being announced on Twitter, there were 1.4 million mentions and 6 million in the first 24 hours.  The topic #ThankYouSirAlex was the number 1 trending topic within 8 minutes.

Essentially, Rigby said that content is king. The content provided by the club and his marketing team allows its fans to attach themselves to the club. If they provide great content, he feels fans will immerse themselves into the club.

I mentioned earlier how Rigby view himself as a custodian of the club.  But I think he summed his role perfectly when he mentioned that he viewed himself as a storyteller.  What he does is tell United’s story.  People always want to be part of the story.  Those of us that follow United, there’s something within that fabric that attracts us to the club, that makes us love the club and in turn we help market the club in our own right.

I talked to the high-flying advertising types on my table.  One talked of an experience at Old Trafford he’d had with a client.  His client was a massive Arsenal fan and they were at Old Trafford to watch United vs Arsenal.  Now, his client had an Arsenal scarf wrapped around his neck and he was advised sternly to take it off.  Eventually he succumbed and sat amongst the United faithful.  Arsenal scored first and the guy proceeded to jump out of his seat. Halfway in the air he realised where he was sitting.  He was blasted with an avalanche of abuse, naturally.  But the punchline of this story was the fact the security needed to surround him to protect him.  Obviously he’d never watched a game in Europe.

After a gourmet lunch (no prawn sandwiches), there was a question and answer session with Rigby.

Rigby was hired by Manchester United on the back of his experience in advertising.  What he initially saw within the club’s marketing wasn’t quite what he expected from a club of United’s stature.  He sought to overhaul the club’s marketing strategies, effectively turning it into an advertising agency.  As a consequence, United’s marketing department is now so big they have now expanded, establishing an office in Hong Kong.

A question was asked as to how the club uses email as a marketing tool.  Rigby told the audience that they have an email newsletter, and that subscribers are sent newsletters containing content regarding the club: events, videos, games and so on.  The links provided are then used by the receiver to delve further in that particular activity.  Again, Rigby stated that it comes down to the content provided.

One audience member asked if Rigby’s department had any say into who the club signed, in terms of a particular player’s marketability.  Rigby answered by saying, “Have you ever met Sir Alex?”  He then explained that it was the manager’s decision into which players were bought.  Sir Alex had the only and final say on who was bought and with his early meetings with David Moyes, expects much of the same.

Another question revolved around whether the marketing departing had any influence of players input on social media and do they advise them of what to put out on social media. The short answer is no. Rigby said that they allow players to be themselves and allow them freedom on any social media platforms they use. He did say that the players are smart enough to not reveal tactics on social media so as to not give opposition teams an advantage.

He said that the players are great when it comes time to market things on behalf of the club.  Of course Rigby’s team gets the ok from manager, with the manager making sure that whatever the players are being used for won’t incur injuries or it doesn’t take the players from important periods during the season (when trophies are on the line or if there’s a run of important matches).

Additionally, he said that when the club established its Twitter account, he gave the players postcards, which had on it what the Twitter account would look like.  He said they were great with promoting via their own accounts.  Rigby also said the club makes it a habit to follow their own players and legends of the club and nothing more.

Another question concerned how the marketing department copes with losing star players.  Rigby mentioned that many players have come and gone and success has remained.  They have worked hard to position themselves as club being above all and everything comes thereafter.  So when the likes of David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo left, yes there was sadness amongst the fan base but Manchester United always remains.  Success continues.

I found it interesting when someone asked whether Rigby’s job changed should Manchester United stop winning.  Rigby’s response was typically Manchester United: If anything, it galvanizes the fans of the club. Citing Manchester City’s EPL triumph, he said that he tried to feel what United’s fans felt.  Using the feelings of the fans provided the basis of their promotion of the team and following season, hence the ‘Made in Manchester’ campaign.

As for Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and how the marketing department coped, Rigby responded by saying he got no sleep. They had no lead-time to prepare.  For the most part, the marketing team felt their way through it.  The only part that was debated was how to position Ferguson’s retirement.  Do they promote it as a sad day or something entirely different?

Eventually they decided on two ways.  The first was #SAFRetires.  This got the message out there in plain and simple terms.  The second way was discovered by feeling what the fans felt.  Would they be sad, what do the fans feel?  It was decided that, deep down, the fans just wanted to say thank you.  #ThankYouSirAlex was born, allowing fans of the club to express their thanks to Sir Alex Ferguson and what he’d given to them.

With that, the event ended, leaving us with an insight as to how Manchester United markets itself and remains the world’s most popular club.