Positioning Manchester United


I will declare my colours early, I prefer Rugby League to football.

I will declare that my football supporting is entirely devoted to the finest team in Europe – Derby County, and that I harbour a grudge from the 8th December 2007 when Derby lost to Man United
4-1. We scored our first away goal of the season, but still a blatant dive won them a penalty to add the 4th in the 90th minute.  Just my opinion you understand ! You can check it out here

But this is a marketing blog and my concern is the proposition and positioning of Manchester United. I worked in Manchester for 8 years and the company I worked for had a box at Old Trafford, so I went quite a few times.

Its a fabulous Ground, a bit light on singing perhaps, but it’s a truly great stadium and the support is genuinely European, at the 4-1 defeat I sat next to a Dane and German – I was in the Stretford end, not being able to get a ticket for the Derby end, which I have to say was interesting for me when Derby scored and my enthusiasm brimmed over a little. The guys around me were nice to me … firm you understand, but nice nonetheless!

When at Old Trafford though you do get a sense of the club being different. Its focus on the heritage story, the remembrance of the Munich disaster is touching but not overdone, the heritage play is impressive as is the use of their ‘Legends’.

The club positions itself as different, their charter is explicit about this not just being a ‘playing ethos’: The mission statement is simple “To be the best football club in the world, both on and off the pitch”.


It goes on to state in its CRS policy that it wants to tackle social issues regionally, nationally and internationally.

The reach they have is incredible – see the graphics here to see what I mean.  They can do it I would contend !

They position themselves as doing things differently, but did they/do they?  What is the evidence?

  1. The Class of 92 evidences a continued desire to ‘grow their own’ … and keep them as can be seen by the current coaching set-up.
  2. The Legends – Bobby Charlton was loved by the British public and is a fabulous Ambassador for MUFC
  3. Sir Alex Ferguson was an incredibly long serving manager at 26 years, having had a difficult first few years he built and rebuilt the team. (My explicit contention being that MUFC did not afford David Moyes the same level of support). He was given time to establish his approach and was famously only one game away from the sack, allegedly. when they won the FA Cup in 1990.
  4. They have a track record of keeping players like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes for long periods of time – both were still playing in their 40s. They do buy in the open market naturally, but they do farm their own fields particularly well. The latest being Tom Cleverly I guess.  The interesting thought is that given the reach described above – blending home grown with worldwide talent ticks boxes in the UK and around the world – vital in todays international game … and for the MUFC mission statement to be believeable
  5. They innovate too – from using basketball training techniques on jumping for headers to yoga and Pilates and early forays into GPS tracking of plays during games (2010).

The ethos has been to do things differently ever since those days of 100,000 supporters at every game in the 1950s. For example Bobby Charlton was asked to work in a factory whilst an apprentice to make sure he understood what it/MUFC meant to ‘real supporters’.  The tragedy of Munich positioned the team and the Busby Babes uniquely in Britain in the still austere post war years … and who didn’t like George Best in the 60’s?

Their positioning was, yes was, all about not doing the normal football things like not hiring and firing Managers after short periods in charge.

To do things with class and dignity.

That has been evident in how the Club has responded to the ongoing criticism of its owners the Glazer family, where Sir Alex Ferguson has been vocally supportive of the regime, but perhaps not in how they handled the sacking of David Moyes.

The 49 million people who regularly watch Man United play each week around the world will possibly be conflicted by the recent events, they will have their own views on who they want to manage the club (don’t we all?) but will the manner of its handling make a change in perception … will the club museum be visited less, or stories of the legends, and doing things the Man United way, be viewed with more scepticsm now? I think they may … at least until the next trophy.

Moyes, was dignified in his exit but the League Managers Association has accused MUFC of acting in an unprofessional manner.

The reporting has been so extensive around the sacking of Moyes that this will inevitably have landed. The master stroke may well be making Ryan Giggs the interim Manger, but not, I would contend, if any new manager dispenses with his services when appointed.

Aside from Arsene Wenger at Arsenal only 2 other managers have been in charge for more than 2 seasons in the current premier league. MUFC and Arsenal standing out as being very different.

It is an interesting dilemma for MUFC, do they acknowledge failings in how the story leaked out and try and endear themselves to fans once more? or not?

I think this is where sports club brands are different to other business brands. The passion and often delusional faith that sports fans have is very different, I will forgive Workington Town RLFC virtually any indiscretion, they are my team, I follow them through thick and thin. If ticket prices go up, I assume this is to allow investment in the club, if facilities are reduced I assume this is to enable monies to be spent on the team and so on. Its irrational not rational.

MUFC will undoubtedly weather this storm but you do feel they will need to demonstrate their difference all over again if they are not to be linked with the usual managerial merry-go round and perceived lack of ‘ethics’ in the game.

Success on the pitch will be the defining factor I imagine, for the fans at least. For Marketers its an interesting propositional challenge to see if they are now viewed just like all other football clubs where Managers are accountable in a more direct way for performance failure than virtually any other business.

I would love your comments … especially on that 2007 penalty !


28th April 2014


Indie for photo
Telegraph and twitter for the reach stats
Forbes for the Bobby Charlton factory information

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