The "Manchester United problem" in marketing


Like many football fans I'm currently enjoying a bit of healthy schadenfreude at the situation at Manchester United in the English Premier League.

Here's a team that for over two decades has dominated their sport winning an eye-watering 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League and two UEFA Champions League titles. All under the management of their long serving manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, arguably one of the best ever coaches in any sport. His departure at the end of last season has exposed shortcomings in a team that was clearly held together by management guile and skill. All of which means the club is "languishing" in 7th in the League, with fans calling for major changes, not least the sacking of their current manager just four months into the job.

But perhaps its time to reset expectations? It might be heresy for ardent fans to say so, but maybe Man Utd just won't be the dominant force they once were? The game has changed. Competition is different. It'll never be what it once was.

How many times I have sat in a marketing meeting where we set out the goal to be "Number 1", "the pre-eminent supplier" or "the leading company" in a market, irrelevant of our, or the competitors', capabilities. Who ever says "we aim to be in the Top 5" or "get to Number 2". Like fans of Man Utd, its just not in our DNA.

But sometimes we need that refresh. Why? Because a company needs its employees bought into its future. And if that future is unachievable (like beating Google in Search in 2014, or being the largest social media network in 6 months) then you're going to demotivate staff and ultimately fail.

Don't get me wrong. Its Ok to dream. But employees need to experience success.

And of course ultimately no company (or sports team) dominates a market forever. In technology, who could have seen the fall from top spot in 1980 of IBM, in 1990 of SAP,  in 1995 of Microsoft, in 2000 of Cisco and in 2008 of Blackberry? None of these are the disruptive, thought-leading forces they once were. But, with the exception of perhaps Blackberry, all are still formidable companies.

Marketers have to understand where their brand is in its development cycle and build a vision linked to reality, Only one company can be Number 1. And not every company deserves to get there. The art is having a strategy that's right for the company NOW. Not 5 years ago.

And be careful what you wish for. As a Chelsea fan of many years, I've seen the backlash of success. The photo above shows one of my matchday programmes from the mid-90s, when its fair to say my team was a comical affair. Inconsistent, underachievers, bubbling around in the second tier and woefully without trophies. That season (1995-96) we finished 11th for the third time in four years.

So after decades of frustration the club eventually turned to the deep pockets of a Russian billionaire and in 2003 began a spending spree that ushered in the most successful period in the club's history, dominating the league for three seasons and bringing many trophies to the club for the first time. Money (buying your way to success) and ruthless execution (shutting down games as soon as you get 1-0 up) were not admired. And accordingly Chelsea has enjoyed a love/hate relationship with fandom ever since. Only of course to be superseded by Manchester City who have taken a similar course.

And with a delicious irony, one of the ways Man Utd can now get out of their current troubles is to spend heavily (£200m+) and buy more players. Pot meet kettle.

Finally, here's a prediction. Google, Facebook and twitter will all fall from their Number 1 spots by 2020. If that seems unlikely, I'll give you the same odds as Fernando Torres scoring the first goal in the next Chelsea match away against Hull. Which for many non-Chelsea fans is just as unlikely. Strangely its 9-2. Making both events near certainties :) 

Not easy building a brand is it?