Branding goes to Hull in a handcart

You might imagine that the supporters of Hull City football club are enjoying this season.

Their team has returned to the English Premier League for only the second time in their 109-year history and now sits very comfortably mid-table. Recent results, including a superb 3-1 victory over Liverpool – the first in the club’s history – suggest that Hull are well-placed not only to survive but to prosper in the upper echelons of English football.

When local businessman Assem Allam took over in 2010 things were very different. Hull were edging dangerously toward administration, having been relegated from the Premier League. There was a genuine concern around East Yorkshire that, like other formerly great clubs before them, Hull would struggle in the seasons to come. Thanks to Allam’s injection of £75m, however, and the subsequent recruitment of managerial veteran Steve Bruce, the club’s prospects have never looked brighter.

But all is not well at the KC Stadium. There was a peculiar atmosphere among the Hull fans at last Monday’s 1-1 draw at Swansea and the past few weeks have been among the most turbulent in living memory of the club.

The reason for the tension? For once it’s not results or the manager that is enraging the fans. It’s brand management – or the lack thereof. Along with his on-field success Allam has a clear vision for the club’s long-term commercial strategy.

“To make a global impact,” he recently told the Hull Daily Mail, “you need a brand. Look at Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea – they are worldwide brands.”

Allam has recently decided to rebrand the club. Out goes the name Hull City AFC, to be replaced with the more internationally appealing Hull Tigers. According to the owner it’s a classic marketing ploy.

“The shorter the name, the more powerful the impact,” he explains. “That’s not an opinion, it’s textbook marketing. Twitter, Google, Apple, Fiat. Fiat means Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, but they choose to keep the name short”.

Despite the club being known as Hull City for more than a century, the owner is clear that supporters must now embrace a more differentiated name.

“My dislike for the word ‘City’ is that it is common,” he says. “The word is also associated with Leicester, Bristol, Manchester and many other clubs. I don’t like being like everyone else. I want the club to be special. It’s about identity. City is a lousy identity and Hull City Association Football Club is so long. In Tigers, we have a really strong brand.”

The response from Hull’s supporter base has been, perhaps not surprisingly, furious. Rick Skelton, well known among supporters for his Hull City Live Twitter feed, said the decision “would go down as one of the saddest days” in the club’s history.

“It may be just a name to Mr Allam, but to us it’s the name of something we love, we’ve cherished and will be cherished long after the current owners,” he wrote. “The saddest part is that this has come at a time when fans should be excited for top-flight football, not angry at a ridiculous rebrand. And the feeling towards the Allam family – who have done wonderful things for our Club and our City – should be one of fondness, not fury.”

The club’s supporters have set up a campaign group called City Till We Die. Allam’s recent retort that “they can die as soon as they want, as long as they leave the club for the majority who just want to watch good football” has merely fanned the flames of disgust around the KC.

“We’re Hull City and we’ll die when we want,” has become the most popular anthem on the terraces.

All this illustrates one of the most important points about brand management – how you enact a strategy is often just as important as the strategy itself. Much of the “marketing theory” being quoted by Mr Allam is, quite frankly, nonsense, but the one area he has completely failed to grasp is brand engagement.

The lesson for other marketers intent on radical changes like rebranding or repositioning is that the more ambitious and dramatic the proposed strategy, the more gentle and engaged a marketer must be to ensure the strategy is first accepted and then executed correctly.

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