Manchester United: brand on the run?

Once a leading global brand, Man United's fortunes are plummeting, on and off the pitch. Stuart Jeffries seeks out some business advice on how to get back in the game

Three years ago, a survey claimed that Manchester United was the most hated company in Britain. How strange – it hadn't done anything wrong. It had never lost an item of luggage, never served up a duff burger or lukewarm latte, never hiked utility bills, its managers didn't have their snouts in the bonus trough, it had never been bailed out with taxpayers' billions, never buggered up your broadband. But it was still more loathed than RyanAir, McDonald's, Starbucks, British Gas, RBS, Lloyds or BT.

Why? The best a spokesman for Online Opinions could manage was: "Manchester United is possibly a victim of its own success and the way it is viewed by passionate fans of its rivals." For the passionate fans of Manchester United, though, this hatred was a badge of honour. In the 1970s Millwall fans devised the chant: "No one likes us. We don't care." For decades Man U's fans could chant the same thing. They could afford not to care. Just look at our cabinets of silverware, its fans could have chanted, not to mention our unprecedented penetration of the increasingly lucrative far-east Asian market and our well-diversfied portfolio of regional sponsorship deals.

"There's been so much arrogance around the brand that it was bound to be hated," says Mark Borkowski, the PR guru whose firm aims to fix brands that are having the wrong impact. "Any brand needs the haters. RyanAir know this. You have a Marmite existence – for huge marquee brands like Man U that's the deal. Live with it."

How much the haters must be loving January. The most loathed brand in football, the most detested company in Britain is getting its comeuppance. First, the champions of England are out of the Premiership title race. And it's only January! Second, they got dumped out of the FA Cup by Swansea City on 5 January.

Third, on Wednesday night, the Red Devils found themselves in a new circle of hell. For 120 nightmarish minutes in Old Trafford's so-called Theatre of Dreams, Britain's most successful team couldn't put Wearside minnows Sunderland to the sword, but instead became embroiled in disaster teeming with tragicomic vignettes. Goalkeeper David de Gea's fumble for Sunderland's goal! The parade of jelly-legged overpaid chokers in the penalty shoot-out! The faces of Sunderland's Man U rejects (John O'Shea and Wes Brown) as they realised they were on their way to confront Man U's parvenu nemeses Man City in the League Cup final in March at Wembley!

And then there was the drunken Man U fan who dialled 999 and demanded to speak to the former United manager Sir Alex Ferguson. "Obviously," said the superb police statement, "it can be a sad and depressing moment when you're [sic] football team loses but can we all please remember that 999 is to be used for emergencies only."

Welcome, Man U supporters, to feeling as wretched as the rest of us football-deranged losers feel pretty much all the time (I write as that dedicated follower of disappointment, an Aston Villa fan).

Fourth, the morning after Man U lost to Sunderland, the club was busted out of the top three by Bayern Munich in Deloitte's league of the leading revenue-generating teams worldwide. Even off the pitch the team was plummeting. Could schadenfreude taste sweeter?

So what's wrong with the Man U brand? "They could become an irrelevance and Man U fans don't really get that," says Borkowski. "They don't realise the truth of the Orwellian quote that you're only six weeks away from bankruptcy."

When I put this to long-term Manchester U fan Michael Crick, I sense rage coming down the line. "As far as I'm concerned, we're a football club, not a bloody brand. In the long term, financially we should be strong with a huge ground, hundreds of millions of fans worldwide, the prestige of playing for MU, and a great youth set-up. The only problem – admittedly a big one – is the Glazer debt."

Oh yes, the Glazers: while Man U was tanking, Man U chairman Avie Glazer was at the World Economic Forum in Davos with Goldie Hawn and Bono, tackling problems more intractable than those of a mere football club.

Crick, who is not only Channel 4 News's political correspondent but author of three books to do with Manchester United (one is a life of Ferguson, the club's most successful manager who last year ceded duties to fellow Scot David Moyes) says he can deal with all the detractors. It's the hubris of his fellow fans that needs puncturing. "Schadenfreude? That's football. We were just the same when Liverpool and [Manchester] City were in decline. Some of the newer glory-hunters may struggle to cope with it, but older fans like me went through the real agony of going to every match the year we were relegated! This is nothing in comparison."

Crick may well be right. Man U, vexingly for the haters, may be wobbling rather than in terminal tailspin. "I  argue, and my friends agree, that Moyes was left a very mediocre squad by Fergie." He points out that the team has only two world-class players, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie. "[Roy] Keane and [Paul] Scholes were never properly replaced, there are too many inconsistent midfield mediocrities – Anderson, Kagawa, Young, Nani, Cleverley, Fellaini."

My attention wanders as Crick expatiates on squad minutiae. I wonder, rather, how a well-managed brand could let things come to this pass. I think of David Moyes's big, staring, mirthlessly Buster Keatonesque eyes on Wednesday night and experience a new emotion: pity for someone on the Old Trafford payroll.

"Ferguson handed Moyes a hospital pass," says Borkowski. "Ferguson is a very ruthless guy and he passed on the results of last season but not a team that could repeat those results. That's unacceptable. Every brand is about a team of people involved, never just the figurehead.

"The history and heritage of the Man U brand is there but it has been woefully lacking in attention to its future." Borkowski tells me that, as we talk he is walking down Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. "In front of me is a 42-ft poster for David Beckham in his pants. Now that's a successful brand. But Man U let him get away."

Forget (if you can) about Dagenham Dave in his undies. The brand Borkowski reckons Man U needs to learn from is the House of Windsor. I'd suggested to Borkowski that Manchester United's woeful January is shocking, even if pleasurably so. But aren't the monarchy and Great Britain cruising for a brand bruising too? When Liz finally hangs up her crown for the last time, the monarchy risks collapse. If and when Scotland plumps for independence, Britain will lose, not just the Saltire from its flag, but its brand identity. Like Man U, both are passionately adored and neither has been nurtured properly.

"I disagree!" shouts Borkowski down the phone from LA. "I'm no monarchist but after their annus horriblis [1992, the year Charles split from Di, the other Fergie split from Prince Andrew and Windsor Castle burned] they have done a remarkable job on themselves. They've brought in new people to replenish the brand." Perhaps that wasn't how William put it to Kate when he proposed. "Other brands should look to the royal family, which was staring defeat in the face.

"And are Scots kilt-wearing Bravehearts bent on independence? I don't think so. I think Brand Britain has re-emerged newly strong. You can't move for Beatles ads here – they're reforming even though half of them are dead. And the ads are covered in the Union flag. What a brand!"

What's the lesson in all this for Man U? "It's a very competitive world and brands need to be managed accordingly. Three or four years ago I picked up a guy who was developing a piece of global software. He was on to me 24/7. I said take some time off, get a good night's rest at least. He said: 'All the time I sleep, someone in another part of the world is dreaming up my competitive nemesis.' Man U don't seem to have realised that truth. To be successful as a brand you have to be relentless. You have to work doubly hard."

No doubt, but when an established brand struggles – especially one that seems to be a fixture in our culture – it is shocking to behold. Thanks to the recent years of austerity and the rise of online shopping, we've witnessed the drawn-out death of the British high street (sorry, Mary Portas). We've witnessed the obliteration of much-loved brands that used to make us glow with nostalgia.

This time last year, for instance, there was a wave of remorse over the collapse of HMV, admittedly it was diluted by the fact that gift vouchers bought at Christmas were invalid. Now there's a new lament for HMV; when the shutters went down for the last time earlier this month on its flagship store on Oxford Street in London, a Banksy-style illustration appeared on a wall in Soho, depicting HMV's icon Nipper the Dog with earphones and MP3 player, in front of a symbolically cracked LP. He was downloading from his laptop (somehow) tunes from Spotify. Poor mutt, instrumental in the demise of his own business model.

Perhaps, in the future, our descendants will feel as nostalgic about the collapse of iTunes and Spotify too. Brands are, like everything else, perishable. You have only a brief time in the sunshine, says Borkowski, or, as Yeats put it in The Second Coming, things fall apart. The centre cannot hold. What Yeats didn't add is that Ryan Giggs will never see 39 again, nor that if Marouane Fellaini is the answer, you're asking the wrong question.

Is Man U perishing, and poised to go the way of HMV into that branding netherworld visited only by a dwindling band of nostalgists? Michael Crick says not: he reminds me that Moyes's Man U is still in the European Champions League, playing better than under Fergie last season, that Adnan Januzaj is brilliant and only 18. He doesn't even mention that the cavalry, in the form of £37m Spanish midfielder Juan Mata, is on its way up the M6 from Stamford Bridge. Things are looking better for Man U, damn them.

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