The former Manchester United shot stopper returned to his first club Ajax back in November 2012, joining the board as marketing director (a role he still holds), and he admits the decision raised eyebrows at first.
The Dutchman told Marketing Week: “A lot of people asked me why I didn’t become a goalkeeping coach but where is the challenge in that?
“There isn’t one, I could do it way too easily. I wanted to stretch myself and learn something entirely new. I could have made lots of money being a club ambassador at United and getting jet legged while endorsing beer but I wanted to aim for something different.”
In the pursuit of this fresh challenge, van der Sar did a masters degree in sports and brand management at the Johan Cruyff Institute after retiring from football. A choice that directly followed his last ever game for United, which they lost 3-1 to Barcelona in the 2011 Uefa Champions League final.
The inspiration to become a marketer was largely sparked by his tenure at United, which, with a valuation of £789m, remain the world’s most valuable football brand according to Brand Finance.
He remembers: “There were a lot of pre-season tours at United of the US and China, and I soaked up everything I could from David Gill [the chairman at the time] and the marketing guys – it made me see a whole new side of football.”
Applying the United model at Ajax
Since taking the reigns at Ajax, van der Sar says he has taken on those learnings from Gill.
“While Aegon was still our main kit sponsor, we noticed that we weren’t capitalising on all the press the Ajax players were generating from their training sessions,” he explains. “So much like the United model, they introduced a separate training kit sponsor.”
And when Aegon stopped their main shirt sponsorship, van der Sar managed to replace them with Ziggo on a €8m per year for the first team and reserve team. ABN AMRO, meanwhile, sponsored the youth, women and amateur teams, with both deals running over 4.5 years – an improvement, he says, on the former deal.
Despite the prestige of clubs such as Ajax, who were the first club to ever win the Champions League, Dutch football is still dwarfed by the financial clout of the English Premier League.
And van der Sar admits that changes the way he deals with advertising agencies.
“We get €9m TV revenue per year, while a relegation battling side in England like Bournemouth get 20% higher TV revenues than us. So we must do it in a different way,” he explains.
“When we had to find a new sponsor, I couldn’t let an agency find one as they take 15%. It is better to get creative towards marketing yourself.”
Looking to Asia
The goalkeeping legend would also like to replicate Manchester United’s success in the Far East, where the English club has legions of Asian fans, at Ajax.
“At Ajax, around €25m [in comparison, United recently achieved a £750m kit deal with Adidas] comes in from sponsoring every year so we’re doing well considering we have a smaller market of 16 million people in Holland,” he adds
“My focus is how we can use social media or Facebook to get a more global appeal. We don’t have a Messi or Ronaldo but we are making moves.
“Last week in China we made a deal for Ajax TV to air special content on our club, including footage from the first team, the youth and also of our history. There are 18-year-olds in China who might not know about the great 1995 team, so we can raise the profile.”
“I didn’t make my way up through Unilever but I am used to having 75,000 people judging every mistake I make – that’s real pressure”
Edwin van der Sar, marketing director at Ajax FC
Brand building like Fergie
In particular, he has focused on talking up the youth values of the Ajax brand.
When Ajax won the UEFA Champions League in 1995 under Louis van Gaal, the team had an average age of just 23 and the club was famed for creating world class talent such as Clarence Seedorf and Patrick Kluivert. And van der Sar says those values remain appealing to brands 20 years on.
“We managed to get the bank ABN AMRO to sponsor all of our youth academies and they were really attracted to the ‘training for the future’ philosophy Ajax can communicate. Our young players now appear in all of their commercials in Holland.”
However, despite his achievements, van der Sar concedes that not everybody will be accepting of his journey into marketing.
“I didn’t study marketing for four years at university or make my way up through Unilever or Coca Cola but what I am used to is having 75,000 people judging every save and every mistake I make – that’s real pressure,” he adds.
“I’m not going to say delivering a great campaign can replicate the buzz of saving the penalty kick from John Terry to win the Champions League but it’s a different kind of pressure and one that’s creatively challenging.”
In particular, he believe CMOs can learn a thing or two from United boss Sir Alex Ferguson.
He concludes: “He knew how to build a great team. When I look at my marketing team I want a Gary Neville, a Ryan Giggs, a Paul Scholes and a Ronaldo around me, as when you’re surrounded by great people you have a better chance of winning something. Whether they are really good at selling tickets or marketing, I want to aim for the very best.”