Brand profile: Love it or loathe it, that’s what Collingwood FC wants
Love it or loathe it, there is no team that knows how to push its brand like the Collingwood Football Club. With over 10,000 members more than its closest competitor, just how is this club so far ahead of everyone else?
No one does branding like Collingwood. Week after week and with team after team, the players fill footy fields wherever they go, rain, hail or shine. Throw in a high profile and often outspoken president, a long list of players highly active and often behaving inappropriately on social media and a fan club full of members better known for their dental hygiene than their chanting and you’ve got yourself a match made in crowd-making heaven.
It is also undoubtedly the most valuable club in the AFL, boasting a membership base of over 77,000. The next closest is the Hawthorn Football Club, which has secured just over 62,000 members for the 2013 season.
Collingwood was able to achieve an average attendance of 59,799 in 2012 – a higher average attendance than such international sporting giants as the New York Yankees and Liverpool Football Club. The average AFL match attendance was 31,509 for the same year.
So what makes the black and white guernsey so powerful (and lucrative)?
It all started in 1892 when the club was formed in the working class area of Collingwood. Though it has come a long way, with multimillion-dollar sponsorship deals and state-of-the-art training facilities, Collingwood fiercely maintains its working class roots.
The loyalty of its fans can be traced back to the time of the Depression, when seeing the team win was an escape from the harsh realities of life in the suburbs.
Collingwood believes its 120-year history is a pivotal part of its brand strategy. It’s the reason, says CEO Gary Pert, that the club has never changed its jumper – and it’s the only club in the Australian Football League (AFL) that hasn’t.
“In some ways we could change the jumper and, from a marketing point of view, that might sell more, and there might be commercial opportunity, but we would see that as disrespectful to our history and our heritage,” says Pert.
When Pert, or ‘Perty’ as he is referred to around the club, took over as CEO six years ago, he made a commitment to put the fans as the “absolute centre of gravity for the club”.
Part of this entailed changing membership options – creating flexible packages like offering a three-gamea-year membership, which allowed the club to turn occasional fans into members.
This strategy involved adjustments to the AFL’s membership guidelines at the time, but has since been seen as being extremely innovative.
Pert makes the point that big-ticket corporate sponsors will only come with a secure and loyal fan base guaranteed to attend matches and support the club.
“We made a commitment to say, while there are so many stakeholders and elements involved in the Collingwood Football Club, everything that we build will be around this centre of gravity of the supporters,” says Pert.
This may not seem like a major shift, but it fundamentally helped change every aspect of the club. There was a time when Collingwood found itself being unable to grow its membership base beyond 30,000, despite its on-field performance. Pert says once the commitment to the supporters being at the centre of every decision was made, things began to fall into place.
Every membership package was completely changed, the entire membership team was rebuilt, the Collingwood call centres were redeveloped and the club made significant changes to its packages and software.
The club carried out extensive research on exactly what the supporters and members of Collingwood wanted and, subsequently, every aspect of the club in the ensuring years evolved accordingly.
The second phase of the redevelopment of brand Collingwood was to increase the engagement between the members and the club. Collingwood has invested heavily in social media platforms and a website, as well as launching a television show to provide supporters with plenty of content.
Pert has a thorough understanding of the media. Besides playing 233 games of AFL football for Collingwood and the now defunct Fitzroy Football Club, past roles also include managing director of the Nine Network and general manager of Austereo in Melbourne.
Launching various multimedia channels, Pert says, was a way for the club to reach its many overseas supporters (the club claims to have members in 88 countries – mostly expatriate Australians), using his expertise in the media field to lay down the foundations of what is fast becoming a small media empire.
Pert says the feedback the club received from its fans is that they were sick of relying on traditional media to find out information on their club. So the club created its own TV show on Fox Footy. It runs for half an hour every Wednesday night.
“From a traditional media point of view we were having to rely on the media broadcasters to portray our club, whatever way they wanted to, and our supporters didn’t like that,” explains Pert.
The show features nothing about game highlights, only behind the scenes footage of the day-to-day running and operation of the club. In a case of what could be described as too much information, the cameras of the Collingwood show take fans inside the operating theatres where a player might be getting a knee reconstruction. They have also placed cameras in captain Nick Maxwell’s bedroom to watch him put ice on his ankle every hour throughout the night.
“It’s a way to get to know the players, with the difficulties and the frustrations,” Pert says. “In the research we’ve done, the fans have said they want that personal connection to the players and they know rationally that they can’t all come and sit and have a coffee with the players. So it’s ‘how do we create that connection to them to a mass audience?’ if you like.”
The show is also used to break news of player signings, sponsorship deals and injuries, and it gives Collingwood further control over the perception of its brand.
“We might have just signed a new player, which our supporters are really excited about, so now we can break that news and do an interview with that player and we can control it, rather than waiting for the traditional media companies to portray it,” Pert says.
The club is now in talks to create a 24/7 Collingwood channel. Pert seems unfazed when asked how the club would be able to create such a large volume of content.
“It’s really not that hard. With all of the historical content we have, we would basically be filming what is the soap opera of the Collingwood Football Club, every minute of every day. There is a full day’s worth of content happening around here every day; it’s just a matter of, ‘do we film it?’ And what platform we choose to run it on.”
Probably the most significant aspect of brand Collingwood, however, is its slogan, ‘Side by Side’ – something that was inspired by its roots as a suburban working class club all those many years ago.
A large chunk of marketing dollars has gone into promoting the slogan, with the club’s latest television commercial being written and voiced by head coach, Nathan Buckley.
“It’s not just something that is, ‘Oh, that sounds nice’ from a marketing point of view; it’s something that we live and breathe,” says Collingwood’s general manager of marketing, Margie Amarfio.
Memberships are highly valuable to clubs, as they allow them to generate income directly. They are also incredibly valuable when courting bigticket sponsors.
Through such sponsors, the club has been able to develop state-of-the-art facilities. Collingwood’s training ground, the Westpac Centre, is currently undergoing a $30 million facelift, including a new football field, community centre, offices and training facilities and the much coveted high altitude room.
Collingwood pioneered the high altitude trend by routinely flying its players to Arizona in the US for pre-season training, something that other clubs, with the budget to facilitate similar training camps, have cottoned onto in recent years.
Amarfio says this is just one example of the club’s strong history of innovation.
“Looking back, there are stories about when the club was first being formed and the people that were running the club at that time were similar to the people running the club now in terms of pushing the boundaries, investing in facilities when it wasn’t the right time economically to do it,” she says.
But for all of its fancy facilities, glowing membership record and flashy sponsorship deals, Collingwood has also become the team everybody else loves to hate.
Like the colours covering its guernsey, the perception of Collingwood Football Club is starkly black and white – you either love it or you hate it. The club plays off that theme of divisiveness to the point where it has become deliberate and the central tenet of its messaging.
While it seems preposterous to think that a brand would go out of its way to be disliked, or even loathed by the masses, that is exactly what Collingwood is aiming for. And this part of the plan is certainly working.
“There is no grey area. We don’t want to be liked by everyone, like some brands do,” says Pert. “I talk to a lot of corporate groups and people will say, ‘If you’re so good at marketing, why do we hate you more than any other club?’ and my reply to them is always, ‘Because you’re supposed to’.”
Branding expert Erminio Putignano, founding partner of brand consultancy PUSH Collective, says the hatred surrounding Collingwood has been carefully nurtured through a savvy marketing strategy in more recent times.
“Collingwood has working class embedded in its DNA (its fan base once included a vast number of Catholic immigrants and working class people), which has been consistently successful over the years, and which has flaunted its roots and its success with no apologies or restraint. That’s an explosive mix,” says Putignano.
“So, mix together class tensions, tall-poppy syndrome and arrogance, and you have an explosive recipe for hatred from other football fans, of course there is. Strong brands are usually built in the face of an enemy, centred on a deep antagonism.”
And antagonise Collingwood certainly does. Pert explains that each interstate game is the perfect opportunity to generate a little bit more of the rivalry the club spends so much time cultivating.
“We proudly want to be the club that everyone wants their team to beat more than any other club. When we go [interstate], Collingwood will generate media attention and rivalry, so if you ask every supporter or every other club ‘Who is your number one rival club?’, it’s probably Collingwood,” he says.
“We manufacture that. There are times when we go interstate, we’ll say something in the media leading up to the game that that club will respond to… it builds up the rivalry. We deliberately want to build the rivalry so their entire supporter base rolls up as well, and that makes the game bigger. It’s good for the competition.”
From a brand perspective, Putignano has nothing but praise for the club. “It has got a single-minded positioning, personality and a very rich underlying brand narrative that is all about ‘us against them’, he says.
“They’ve brought that narrative to life in campaigns that are very dramatic, that are over the top in their adoption of warfare metaphors. Collingwood players, and by association their supporters, are portrayed as heroes, as martyrs. They are campaigns that ignite visceral emotions, that ask fans to make an unwavering commitment. That’s powerful stuff,” he says.
For now, it seems all that is left for Collingwood is global domination, but even that goal doesn’t seem too far out of reach, with international memberships growing every day.
The big steps the club has taken so far have paid off, but for Pert the hard work isn’t over yet.
“Our vision is to be the biggest and best sporting club in Australia, and hopefully if we keep listening to the feedback of our supporters, we’ll get there soon enough.”
Looking at the numbers, Perty, perhaps you’re already there.