Manchester United is arguably the world’s biggest and best supported football club. It has a rich, and sometimes tragic, history. It has played hosted to legends such as Sir Matt Busby, George Best, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Sir Alex Ferguson. For a club so enormous, its reach was unprecedented. So how does the club market itself, both locally and globally?

In 2013, Manchester United Football Club visited the shores of Sydney, Australia as part of their preparations for the 2013-14 English Premier League season. It was the beginning of David Moyes’ short reign and Sir Alex Ferguson’s shadow still loomed large.

As part of the tour Rio Ferdinand had completed a book signing in the city, while Moyes himself and United legends were hosting a lunch in another part of the city. But perhaps the most interesting event was Marketing Manchester United Business Lunch, which was hosted by Jonathan Rigby, head of the Marketing Department at United.

The Business Lunch was split into two parts. Part one would be a seminar in which Rigby would talk through how the club operated in a marketing and advertising aspect. Part two would be a question and answer session, in which the audience would be able to ask questions to Rigby.

Jonathan Rigby was hired by Manchester United on the back of his experience in advertising. Initially, what Rigby saw within the club was not what he expected to see from a club of Manchester United’s stature. He set out to overhaul the club’s marketing strategies, effectively turning the marketing department into an advertising agency. Nowadays, the marketing department of Manchester United is so big they have needed to expand. The club has now established an office in Hong Kong as part of the expansion.

The lunch would definitely be fascinating. Days after the seminar, I spoke to two Manchester United fans so as to keep Rigby’s seminar in perspective. The first fan is Mark O’Connor. He is the Chairman of the Official Manchester United Supporters Club in New South Wales, Australia. The second is Warren Barton, a season ticket holder at Old Trafford.

I arrived at the function a little earlier than I was required to. As a Manchester United fan myself, I was excited to be there and that was understating it. This was a chance to see how the club operated their marketing and advertising and how they seemingly managed to reach every corner of the globe.

Arriving early allowed me to see Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Bryan Robson and Denis Irwin being given a tour around the Ivy, the location of the business lunch. Eventually they reappeared and I managed to get a photo with Bryan and Dwight. Here I was, awestruck, and now I had a photo with two legends of the club I had supported since I first got a glimpse of Eric Cantona when I was a little boy.

As more of the audience started to arrive, you were able to get a photo with the English Premier League trophy…if you were quick enough. The trophy was soon transported to the Legends Lunch across town.

Gradually the Ivy Ballroom began filling up. There was mingling and networking amongst the crowd and the chit chat was almost exclusively focused on football. Even the A-League got discussed, especially with Sydney FC snaring the coveted signature of Serie A, UEFA Champions League and World Cup winner Alessandro Del Piero.

Word began spreading that entrées would be served and Jonathan Rigby would begin his talk. After a brief introduction from the event’s MC, Rigby began speaking. He began by thanking everyone for attending, followed up by proclaiming how overwhelmed they’d been by everyone’s reception during their visit.

As an unashamed Manchester United fan, this was a fantastic day for me. Eric Cantona is the reason I started following the club, having only seen glimpses of football on the sports reports during the news in the early 90s. I did make the pilgrimage to Old Trafford a few years ago but my timing was with being able to see a game. Old Trafford is a phenomenal stadium filled with history and monuments to various eras. I know I have to go back to watch games there. It’s a must.

With the pleasantries out of the way Rigby began his talk on his he and his team markets the world’s biggest club, Manchester United Football Club. He started by talking about the brand, the club’s fans and the global appeal of the club. Rigby explained how he and his team use the mantra Being Closer: aiming to bring the club closer to its fans not only locally but also globally. He continued by saying that the club’s global fan base is 659 million fans. Of that0.1% actually stem from Manchester or England, while the Asia-Pacific region accounts for 50% of the global fan base.

Warren Barton is a season ticket holder at Old Trafford. He doesn’t miss a game. Barton says he has no good or bad feelings about the global fan base. “Manchester United is such a huge name in the football world,” he says. “It’s likely to grow further as long as the club continues to win major honors and attract star players.”

Interestingly, Rigby noted that he did not see himself as the Head of Marketing. Rather he felt he was more a custodian of Manchester United. Rigby believed he was a protector of the brand, while simultaneously ensuring the club remained successfully economically. Rigby discussed a cycle of having players playing entertaining football. This lead to attracting fans and in turn leads to revenue. As the club gets revenue this then allows to the club to reinvest into the playing squad, ensuring a continuous cycle to sustain on-field and off field success. This cycle is driven by commercial growth.

Rigby referred back to the fan base and broke down figures by global regions. The club harbours 34 million and 37 million fans in North and South America respectively. In the Middle East, 173 million fans support the club. In Europe, the number of Manchester United fans is 90 million whilst the Asia Pacific region account for the rest of their global fan base, a staggering 325 million fans. These are some enormous numbers illustrating the global reach of Manchester United.

With 659 million fans globally, Rigby rhetorically asked the audience how the club provided its fans with a meaningful connection. Rigby quoted legendary United manager Sir Matt Busby. “Never forget we’re going on the pitch to entertain.” It starts with the players. Most of United’s fans will only ever see them play on television. Those fans are also unlikely to make the trek to Old Trafford. Barton makes a good, yet obvious, comment about this. “If we have a slump in fortune on the pitch, it would be interesting to see if these armchair supporters would stick around,” he says.

Global television deals have helped increase the popularity of the English Premier League worldwide, as has the club’s own media helped in increasing the club’s global popularity. The club reaches an incredible 1.16 billion homes globally per season. On match day alone, 103 million households can be tuning in to watch. Additionally the club’s very own television channel, MUTV, can be accessed by 61 million homes worldwide, across five continents.

“The English Premiership is so huge, especially in the last 20 years or so,” says Barton, before continuing on. “United’s dominance in this period has gained the club a few million extra fans globally. We have Sir Alex to thank for this as well as our superstars over that time, Cantona, Giggs, Scholes, Ronaldo, van Persie, Rooney, Vidic and Ferdinand.”

Rigby continued discussing their global reach, this time through their mobile partners. When Vodafone ended their sponsorship, the marketing team looked at different ways in which they could continue to reach, and even increase, their global reach. One idea involved having mobile partners around the world, either national or regional operators. This idea evolved and now the club has 47 mobile partners worldwide, with a majority of them in Africa and Asia.

Social media platforms have also increased United’s popularity. Manchester United has its own website, a Facebook and Twitter account. In recent years the club has also added Instagram, Google+ and Weibo to its arsenal of social media accounts.

While the club was in Sydney, they launched their Twitter account. Their new Twitter account saw 1.1 million followers gained in its first few weeks of operating. The club’s presence on Facebook has been a long standing one, with the club having a page on the site for a number of years.

At this point in time, Manchester United had only recently opened its Twitter account. The club used the players in helping to promote it. Rigby said the players were given postcards indicating what the Twitter account would resemble. He said the players were great in promoting through their own social media accounts. Importantly from the club’s point of view, they made it a habit to only follow its own players and legends of the club only.

Rigby expanded on the club’s social media figures. The official club website is available in 7 different languages. Their Facebook page is the fastest growing sports page on the site. To put that in context, F.C. Barcelona’s (46.3 million) and Real Madrid’s (43.1 million) pages on Facebook have more likes than United. However, Manchester United is the most talked about club on Facebook. Rigby displayed a graphic that showed the club was talked about twice as much as the two La Liga clubs!

While the players had their own social media channels, Rigby said that he and his team do not influence the players in regard to how and what they put on their social media. The club allowed to the players to be themselves and to use social media as they please. This provides the players with freedom, but Rigby also confirmed that players were smart enough not to reveal team tactics and other relevant information on social media. Given the culture of the club under Ferguson, the players were smart enough not to give any of their opposition an advantage.

Rigby then discussed how they used email as an effective marketing tool. Rigby elaborated on the fact that the club has a newsletter which is distributed regularly by email. The content included has information regarding events, videos, games and so on. Subscribers use the links provided in the email to delve further into that activity. Rigby cleverly rounds off by saying content is king.

Referring to a question of whether his team had a say in who the club signed in terms of a player’s marketability, Rigby responded comically. “Have you met Sir Alex?” The audience burst into laughter. Followers of Manchester United knew that during his reign, Ferguson ruled the club with an iron fist and only he had a say in which players were brought in. Since Ferguson’s retirement, Rigby’s initial discussions with David Moyes indicated that trend would continue before emphasising that he and his team never involved themselves with player recruitment whatsoever.

When it came to marketing the club, the players of Manchester United were always easy to work with. Rigby clarified that approval to use players was always sought from Sir Alex Ferguson, ensuring that the use of players didn’t impact with important periods of the season or cause unnecessary injuries.

At some point, every club loses its star players. Manchester United have never been immune from that. When players left the club, success stayed and there was little impact on the trophy room. What the club and Rigby and his team worked hard to do, and continues to do, is to position the club as being above all else, first and foremost. Everything else comes after that. So when the club loses its star players, such as David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Ruud van Nistelrooy, fans experienced sadness at their departures. However, success continued.

The discussion then moved to how Manchester United actually advertised. We were told that United does not engage in any paid advertising whatsoever. This stunned the room, with the reaction clearly indicating that not a single person in the audience had even contemplated the scenario. Interestingly, the club has an agreement with Facebook to make sure there are no sponsor clashes between the club and Facebook on their page. Additionally, the club makes it’s a point not to push their own merchandise via their Facebook page.

So, with the club having 36 million Facebook fans, how do they turn them into marketable numbers?

The answer that Rigby provided was actually quite simple. The club aims to provide a value exchange for its fans. The Marketing Department focused on providing fans with a value exchange, which in turn they hope produces an increase in fan numbers, match day visits, tours and merchandise purchases. By using that information, the club can further focus on what it can provide to the fans through their social media channels. The focus is spread across a variety of things in which existing fans can see whilst hoping to attract new fans. This keeps in line with the value exchange. The club uses things behind-the-scenes access, first-to-hear club news, money-can’t-buy competitions and fair opportunity exchange with fans to connect with, and entice new, fans which importantly makes them feel part of the team.

The value exchange has many components. One of the components is the official supporters clubs (OSC). Rigby made a point of saying that Manchester United do not impose themselves on OSCs and dictate as to how they should be run. United very much allows OSCs to run themselves. Given the history and heritage of Manchester United, Rigby says the club feels that fans understand how they should run an effective OSC. That being said, the club does have the final say on which supporters club get to actually be designated an official Official Supporters Club.

Once a supporters club is made an official OSC, the club assigns a Relationship Manager to that particular OSC. The Relationship Manager is the liaison point between the club and the OSC. They are responsible for organising meet and greets if the club tours the location of an OSC and if the OSC visits Old Trafford. They also organise match tickets and prizes for competitions OSCs run for their members among other things. This particular aspect of the club adds a further layer to the value exchange and increases the sense of belonging to Manchester United for fans.

Mark O’Connor is the Chairman of the Manchester United Official Supporters Club of NSW. This is one of the few worldwide which has ‘official’ status from Manchester United. It was lobbied for ferociously by the club’s founders, Fred and Ann Pollitt. “The club does a lot of work for our members and official One United members,” O’Connor says of Manchester United’s involvement, “They also help with ticket allocations for members travelling to Old Trafford.”

I am intrigued when hearing about this first hand. I absolutely never realised just how much communication there was between the club and an OSC. “It’s like a home away from home. For the tour, the club was fantastic,” says O’Connor before continuing. “I met with them last November (2012) regarding the possibility of a tour in Australia. We were given exclusive functions like the Legends Night at The Star. We also received a large allocation of tickets to the game against the Allstars. We were invited to meet the squad at the hotel plus we were given a look at the Manchester United Soccer School. This was just members only and these things are the privileges of being a member of our Official Supporters Club. United were just fantastic towards us while they were here.”

As a fan, it is always nice to hear about the positives that the club does or provides, such as their involvement with the OSC when they toured Australia. I asked O’Connor how helpful the club is when members of the OSC visit Old Trafford.

“We definitely don’t feel like tourists, far from it,” says O’Connor. “We have a lot of patrons of our club, such as Ryan Giggs and Sandy Busby (son of Sir Matt). Personally I have been taken to meet players past and present and presentations amongst other things. To visit Old Trafford is great! I personally love getting there a few hours before the game, just to get in on the banter and soak up the atmosphere.”

Speaking of atmosphere, I go back to Barton and ask him what the atmosphere is like at Old Trafford. “What atmosphere?,” he says. “Unless it’s Liverpool, Manchester City, a big European game (like hosting Real Madrid in the UCL last season) or maybe Chelsea (kind of), the ground is dead. You’d find more atmosphere at a lower league game in front of 2,000 people as opposed to our 76,000 seater.”

As someone who is yet to experience a game, Barton’s comments have disappointed me. It’s not what I expected to hear at all. I press Barton further, wondering if it’s the perception of tourists that have caused the atmosphere to become diluted. “It’s a disgrace. I remember Barcelona at home in ’84, that was mental” Barton says, referring to the Cup Winners’ Cup tie in 1984.”

My question about atmosphere seems to have hit a nerve with Barton. “Last season only the Madrid game reached those heights,” he says. “It’s a shame really. You do get a lot of what we call day trippers, armed with their camera which probably costs more than the house I live in. They have a bag full of goodies from the club store that only millionaires could dream of. They also seem to be more interested in getting that perfect camera moment rather than actually watching the game. It really annoys me as a season ticket holder. But at the end of the day, they have paid to watch and have probably travelled across the globe to come and watch and it is their choice. At the end of the day, that doesn’t help the atmosphere one bit. It sometimes does make me feel like I’m at a theme park or tourist attraction than a British football match.”

Back at the seminar, Rigby moved on and began talking about the club’s global fan panel. He feels that the global panel is a great mechanism as it gives the club direct access to the fans. Fans are able to provide input to the club directly, what they’re doing great and poorly at, provide feedback and other such input. Subsequently, the panel allows the club to tweak and fine tune what it offers to fans thus increasing their presence amongst fans.

Things became more interesting when Rigby proceeded to discuss the club’s sponsorships. Once dialogue has been established with a potential sponsor, the club meets personally with them. The purposes this serves is to ascertain what the sponsor can offer Manchester United and what Manchester United can offer them. When the opportunities have been established, the club will then decide whether it is worth their while to engage them as a sponsor.

Rigby stressed that Manchester United does view its sponsorships as just sponsorships. At United, sponsorships are viewed as partnerships. Whilst the sponsor is putting money into the club, the club is being used as a means to advertise the sponsor. In reality, the club and sponsor help each other gain maximum exposure by working together. Further to this, the club works hard to make sure that the partnership is long lasting and continually renewed. It is as much about making the partner feel like a part of Manchester United and vice versa. It is a clever way to engage with their partners and make the partnership as effective as possible.

Nike was a prime example of this mindset. They were Manchester United’s official kit supplier for well over ten years. Nike were currently in discussions to extend their partnership, with speculation suggesting any new deal would have been worth £1 billion, making it the most expensive kit deal in the world. The current partnership between Manchester United and Nike has seen the club’s popularity increase globally while Manchester United have helped Nike’s brand recognition increase.

In the time since Rigby’s seminar, Manchester United has gone on to switch to adidas, football’s most recognisable and iconic company. The deal that was signed dwarfed what Nike offered. The reason that Nike didn’t offer big money like adidas was because that since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, the club has experienced some lean times in terms of trophies. Adidas were attracted to United’s global brand recognition and they did everything to ensure they sealed the deal.

But to go back to using Nike as the example, here is where the perspective comes in. Nike was provided access to players from Manchester United, Juventus, Arsenal and F.C. Barcelona (all clubs with kits supplied by Nike at that point in time). Nike established a website with common content from each club and players, showing training exercises, routines and how players prepared for the season. The viewing numbers were staggering. Manchester United’s videos were the most viewed on the website. Their videos received a staggering 7 times more views than Juventus’ videos and 11 times more than Arsenal’s.

Using these numbers, Rigby segued back to discuss further statistics involving social media. When Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement and it was relayed on Twitter, there were 1.4 million mentions and 6 million retweets within the first 24 hours. The hashtag, #ThankYouSirAlex, trended worldwide almost instantaneously. Within 8 minutes, it was the number one trending topic worldwide.

Rigby talked about the changes, if any; in his job should Manchester United stop winning. As he described it, Rigby’s response was typical of the attitude that Ferguson had spent so many years creating and cultivating: losing galvanises the club. Using Manchester City’s 2012 Premier League triumph, Rigby said that his team tried to feel the emotion United fans felt. Once they thought they had it figured out, they used it as part of their promotion and hype for the following season. Hence the ‘Made In Manchester’ campaign.

The marketing head was asked how the marketing department coped with the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. Rigby’s initially short answer drew laughter, again. “With no sleep!” Expanding on this, Rigby described how his team had no lead-in time and for the most part felt their way through it. As it was happening, they were unsure as to whether they should promote it as a sad day or something entirely different.

Eventually, they had decided on two ways to promote it. The first way was to use the hashtag #SAFRetires. This got the message out in plain and simple terms. The second way was a result of discovering what the fans were feeling. Were they sad? Were they appreciative? They had come to the conclusion that the fans just wanted to say thank you. And so, #ThankYouSirAlex was born, allowing the fans to express their gratitude toward Sir Alex Ferguson and what he had given them during his long reign.

In the end, what it all boils down to is the simple fact of content being king. Rigby described that the content they provided fans with allowed the fans to attach themselves to Manchester United. “If we provide the fans with great content, fans will immerse themselves into the club,” said Rigby.

Rigby then summed up his role by describing himself as a custodian and storyteller of Manchester United Football Club. He tells the story of United and people want to be part of the Manchester United story. For fans around the world that follow the club, there’s something within the fabric of United that attracts us to the club and makes us love the club. Rigby aptly stated that “the club’s fans help market the club in their own right.”

While Rigby’s seminar was full of insight and excellent, I felt that Rigby avoided crucial information, such as how the club promoted its home games to season ticket holders. After all, season ticket holders are the people who make up the bulk of the crowd on match day, ensuring that Old Trafford is always at capacity.

Speaking with Barton, he sums up the answer to the questions I want to ask him. “Sadly season tickets don’t mean anything anymore,” said Barton. “Years ago they were gold dust. Once a upon a time there was a huge waiting list for season tickets, rumoured to be ten years or more. Nowadays tickets can be bought well into the season. As a result, United now struggle to sell tickets to the less glamourous games. You hear more ads on radio, Facebook, Twitter, etcetera, saying tickets are available for certain games. Years ago this was unheard of!”

Manchester United fans are a passionate lot. That is typified by the #ThankYouSirAlex hashtag. I ask O’Connor what it means to be Chairman of the Manchester United Official Supporters Club in NSW. His answer is filled with pride. “Being Chairman of the Manchester United Official Supporters Club in NSW is a great privilege. It’s great meeting new people, making new friends and getting together for matches, events and our other functions.” He continues, “Growing up in Oldham, Manchester, you were either a red or a blue. I supported the club from an early age. The passion and history of the club was enough for me to decide who I was going to support, even when the results weren’t there. You feel the players’ passion; never say die as we saw in 1999.”

I finish my conversation with O’Connor by asking if he or any of the OSC members feel any less of a fans being so far away from Old Trafford. It is a valid question, particularly as fans of other clubs make fun of Manchester United having so many fans. O’Connor’s response is filled with a sense of honour. “Not for a second. I think we are bigger supporters than some, getting up at crazy hours of the morning to watch the lads play. Some of us have travelled 12,000 miles to watch them play in the Champions League Final. There is so much passion amongst our members, just as much as there is back home.” O’Connor continues, “Our members feel a sense of pride and passion being a member of the biggest supporters club this side of the globe. It is really encouraging that no matter where the fans are, the club itself actively looks to participate with their supporters clubs.”

I have one more question for Barton, though. As he is a Manchester local and a season ticket holder, I ask him if he feels there is, Glazers aside, a feeling that Manchester United is more interested in making a profit rather than attract world class players, taking into consideration their global appeal. His response is saddening somewhat, particularly when put into context with the summer transfer troubles and ordinary start to David Moyes’ reign.

“The Glazers are bleeding our club. With these guys in charge our great club now has a cancer within and in my eyes it will never be cured. Like most club owners seemingly these days, they are clueless and have little interest in football. They are just here to make money off the brand. Our debt is sky high but our success on the field keeps that debt in check, More than ever, the club seems more focused on sponsorship than anything else. The only player we managed to buy we paid overs for. A club like Manchester United shouldn’t be doing that! The club makes huge money through television deals, new kits every season and match day tickets. As for my season ticket, I have to think long and hard about whether I want to renew next season. It’s not cheap and when I work it out, it costs me roughly £2,000.”

On one hand, it is interesting to see how Manchester United’s marketing department keep the club on top in the popularity stakes. It is also pleasing to see the connection they have with fans and OSCs. These are all aspects which I am sure other clubs achieve. But the sadness seeps through when you speak to the fan who has the season ticket and goes to every game. He is disillusioned and questions whether he should invest his hard earned money into the club.

This is typical of modern football.

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