The past few years have been transformational for the world of sport.
The coronavirus pandemic especially challenged football clubs to find new ways to engage fans during lockdowns across Europe.
One of the most-hit industries during the pandemic, clubs found new ways to engage fans while maintaining their usual branding obligations. From melting trophies, new kits, and videogame competitions, here’s a quick look at some successful branding and marketing campaigns that have come out of the world of football since 2020.
While the coronavirus unfolded, The Netherland’s Eredivisie 2019-20 season was canceled before all the fixtures had been played. Dutch football made its return for the 2020-21 season, but fans were still barred from entering football stadiums.
So when AFC Ajax claimed their 35th championship, they did it without fans for 30 of their 34 matches.
Not content with steamrolling the competition (they won the title by a massive 12 points), Ajax launched the Piece of Ajax campaign and melted down their championship trophy into over 42,390 individual stars—one for each of the club’s season ticket holders—as a thank you for their support while matches were played behind closed doors.
Edwin van der Sar, CEO at Ajax, said: “This season, we have largely had to play without our fans. Without them sitting in the stands, at least. Despite this, we have felt their support every week. On the way to the stadium, on social media, and in our personal contacts".
"Previously, when we said 'this title is for you,' we were expressing how we were doing it for the fans. However, sharing the trophy is the ultimate proof that we really are. After a turbulent year, we are ensuring our fans feel part of our championship."
Ajax’s commitment to sharing their successes with fans was admirable, and it won them many plaudits for their creative and heartfelt initiative.
When football fixtures in England were postponed indefinitely at the start of the pandemic, Leyton Orient Football Club off-the-cuff campaign turned into a 126-team knockout FIFA tournament that would include teams from sixteen countries, including England, the USA, and The Netherlands.
At a time when the world faced uncertainty, Leyton Orient’s campaign created solidarity among football fans worldwide and gave them something to smile about.
#UltimateQuaranTeam started off as a “let’s do something while there’s no football being played” game, but it soon picked up momentum with teams like Manchester City, Roma, Orlando Pirates, Sydney FC, Istanbul Basaksehir and Groningen nominating one individual to represent them on the FIFA 20 video game—including professional footballer Andros Townsend (Crystal Palace).
The result? £66,122 was raised for the English Football League, mental health charity Mind and the official Covid Response Team—and a lot of FIFA games played during lockdown!
Danny Macklin, Chief Executive at Leyton Orient said: “This is very much the brainchild of our innovative Media Team. This provides a fantastic opportunity to play a small part in providing some engaging content to football fans at this very difficult time. Furthermore, and perhaps even more importantly, it’s a chance to raise much-needed funds for EFL clubs and two phenomenal causes."
At a time when the world faced uncertainty, Leyton Orient’s campaign created solidarity among football fans worldwide and gave them something to smile about. Great branding exposure, too!
London is one of the world’s most powerful footballing cities. Clubs like Chelsea, Fulham, and West Ham United call it home, but the red and white of Arsenal F.C is most closely associated with London’s football history.
Outside the world of football, London faces ongoing problems with youth crime and gang culture—in 2021, London saw the highest ever level of teenage murders since records began, most of which involved knife attacks.
Arsenal’s response was strong, and the club’s No More Red campaign (in partnership with adidas) manifested itself on the pitch. Arsenal removed any hint of red from their traditional strip, playing in an all-white kit in an FA Cup match against Nottingham Forest to raise awareness of the amount of young blood being spilled on the streets of London.
The campaign included interviews with current and former players, actor Idris Elba, and grassroots initiatives that tackled the root causes of youth violence.
Arsenal went one step further—the all-white shirts were not made commercially available, and were instead reserved for people making significant contributions to local communities.
Idris Elba, No More Red mentor, said: “From the time young people leave school, until the time they’re at home with family, there is often a void, a dangerous spike of nothing to do, where nothing can easily turn into something dangerous."
“If there continue to be no options for this after-school period, we will always see gangs form. Let’s create options for these young people.”
Arsenal’s campaign raised a lot of awareness for youth violence in London, and the club’s decision to emphasise the problem through a specially-made kit was particularly effective.
While Arsenal was tackling youth violence in London, rivals Manchester United were focusing on the older generation.
The ‘Donate Your Words’ campaign— launched in tandem with chocolatiers Cadbury’s—found that 225,000 older people go more than a week without speaking to anyone and raised awareness for older supporters who don’t have anyone to share their words with.
Featuring club captain Harry Maguire and reaching 92.8% of the UK’s population, Manchester United pushed awareness for the older generations, including matchday advertising, digital media, and matchday access, to create a unique ‘Guest of Honour’ experience for 11 local elderly Manchester United fans.
“Any small gesture and interaction can play a part in helping to help tackle loneliness amongst our older generation.”
Sean Jefferson, Director of Partnerships at Manchester United, said: “We are pleased to start our partnership with Cadbury by supporting their ‘Donate your words’ campaign. The Club is encouraging all fans to give a few moments of their time to speak to older people around them who might welcome a thoughtful conversation".
Like Arsenal, Manchester United brought their campaign to the pitch—a strong move that gave the Donate Your Words initiative an added sense of authenticity.
It isn’t just football clubs that produce excellent branding campaigns—entire leagues can too. In 2021, LaLiga (Spain’s top footballing division) rolled out seven red carpets worldwide (literally) to raise awareness for its showcase fixture, El Clásico.
Real Madrid vs Barcelona is one of the world’s most intense footballing rivalries, where the winners of El Clásico are often the team that goes on to win the league. And it isn’t just a Spanish audience that is invested in the outcome, which is why La Liga launched a campaign that brought El Clásico to nations including the US, Australia, and—most famously—Tajikistan.
La Liga won the “Best Marketing/Advertisement campaign” at the Marspo Awards in 2021 for rolling out the red carpet in Tajikistan's capital city Dushanbe to demonstrate the city’s love of football.
Jose Carlos Loaiza, LaLiga Delegate for Russia & Baltic countries, said: "We are very happy with this recognition. From London to Dakar, the installation of the LaLiga ‘Red Carpets’ across the globe brought to life the excitement, the entertainment, the glamour, and the global reach of this fixture and LaLiga. We are pleased to see we played a part in inspiring people across Central Asia, through the power of sport and entertainment."
Too often, major sporting fixtures are seen through the prism of a “local” audience. La Liga put that myth to bed with this campaign and was well-rewarded for demonstrating that even smaller nations enjoy football as much as local fans.
Sports institutions can’t survive without fans, and engaging them with meaningful campaigns adds authenticity to the “fan+club” dynamic while also adding goodwill for watching audiences around the world.
Looking more closely, each of these campaigns had a foundation in sport, but their goals were ultimately non-sporting. Whether it was raising awareness for a societal issue or creating unity in times of hardship, the world of football has repeatedly proven that the success or failure comes from a desire to do good for as many people as possible.
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