Mark Ritson: There’s only one Man Utd but several Manchester Cities

Depending on your allegiance, the start of the Premier League season at the weekend either delighted or disappointed you.

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If you are a Manchester City fan, you were probably over the moon with a solid away win at Newcastle. For Manchester United fans, however, the lean spell of last season continued with a home loss to Swansea.

But if you really want to see which of these two great football teams is going to emerge victorious over the next few seasons, you have to shift your focus from the football field to the branding arena.

In red we have Manchester United, indisputably the most successful English team of recent years and one of the most valuable sporting brands in the world. Forbes magazine recently valued them at just under £1.6bn, ranking them third behind Real Madrid and Barcelona as one of football’s Big Three.

In blue we have Manchester City. By any comparison City are trailing their crosstown rivals. Their average attendance, merchandise sales, total revenue and annual profit are all currently substantially below those of Manchester United. But the key word in this paragraph is ‘currently’.

For the past five years, ever since the club was acquired by super-rich Sheikh Mansour, Manchester City have been plotting their long-term strategic success. Central to that plan is branding and there is now an additional contrast between City and United: the brand architecture the respective clubs have adopted.

United has a traditional model. The club has a series of international affiliate or so-called ‘feeder’ clubs that help to develop talent globally but essentially United is a branded house with a single corporate brand used globally. Every Saturday at Old Trafford the loyal fans sing “There’s only one Man United” and it’s a mantra that nicely encapsulates the club’s approach to brand architecture too. A branded house confers all the classic advantages of focus, the economies of brand, international scale and employer brand strength.

City, however, are up to something very different. A year ago Sheikh Mansour also became the majority owner of a Major League Soccer franchise to be launched in 2015 in New York City. Earlier this year, he went a step further and acquired the Melbourne Heart football team in Australia. There was nothing unusual in either deal – billionaires have often been known to acquire more than one sporting franchise. What is surprising is the branding approach that the sheikh has adopted for both teams. His American team is named New York City and everything – from their logo to their sponsors to their strip – demonstrates a clear link with Manchester City.

With the Melbourne Heart acquisition the link is even more overt, with the team being immediately rebranded Melbourne City and their traditional red and white kit replaced with a home shirt very similar to Manchester City’s traditional away strip.

Manchester City is not a branded house. Instead, it is now part of a house of brands or, to be more specific to the brand relationship spectrum most experts use to devise brand portfolios, a ‘shadow endorsed house of brands’. Inside its headquarters the club refers to this strategy as the ‘City Family’ and the man behind it is Ferran Soriano, the MBA-trained former FMCG executive who was headhunted from Barcelona to become the chief executive of Manchester City in 2012.

Soriano has surely set his sights on a global City brand encompassing not only English, American and Australian leagues, but also a raft of teams around the world. Expect more international additions to the City Family soon.

The house of brands approach, especially when used in a shadow endorsement formation, enables City to create independently positioned and nationally supported brands while at the same enjoying the back-of-house synergies that come from being part of an international organisation.

“We have experience in football performance, medicine, sports science and, of course, tactics and technical development,’’ Soriano explained to Australian journalists after the Melbourne acquisition was announced. ‘‘We also know about player recruitment and have large scouting networks all over the world to look for players for the Melbourne team as well as the others. We want all our teams to take benefit from our global organisation.’’

So there is indeed only one Man United, but there are going to be several Manchester Cities. The contest between a red-branded house and a blue house of brands has just kicked off.

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