About Hull City – The Tigers
In August 2013, Chairman Assem Allam (1) submitted a request to the Football Association to change the club name to Hull Tigers Ltd. As a result all hell has broken loose. Dr. Allam says that the name change will be shorter and snappier, and more marketable. Lobbying Group ‘City ‘Til We Die’ say ‘no’; it has almost 6000 members and is growing. The FA make a decision at the end of the season. But meanwhile, what’s the fuss in brand naming?
About Hull City – The Tigers
Hull City Association Football Club was founded in 1904. There is no record of the first person to shout ‘Up the Tigers!’ but the first reference in print to ‘The Tigers’ appeared in the Hull Daily Mail in March 1905. In the season that Hull City first wore a black and amber strip. The first ‘Tiger’ badge appeared on the strip in 1947, and over the years it has taken many forms (2).
Football clubs as brands
As a marketer, my experience is that the most successful businesses and brands are customer driven. All marketing activities should therefore meet customer needs, improve stand-out and increase appeal. However, the proposed changes are clearly unappealing to a sizeable proportion of the fans. Many plan to boycott matches and also refuse to renew their season passes.
As a marketer and Hull City supporter, I’m curious about the business case. If there is evidence that a name change will benefit the Club, Dr. Allam seems reluctant to share it.
Dr. Allam has lived in the City of Hull since the 1960s. He’s a successful businessman and his investment in Hull City has helped it reach the Premiership. He also says the word ‘City’ is lousy and common and if he doesn’t get his way he’ll leave (3). This is a very emotional response, and his words don’t sound like those of a Hull or Hull City supporter.
Pros and cons of repositioning brands and changing brand names
On the plus side, the hullabaloo surrounding the brand name change gives Hull a bit of publicity. Not bad for a team, only in its third year in the Premiership. And high brand awareness is an important characteristic of a strong brand. Fortunately, though, there is much more to a football brand than a name. Product performance has thus far held up, thanks to Mr. Bruce and the team. The Club has built huge equity in entertaining and bringing generations together. Both through highs and lows. Not just the roller coaster ride in winning and losing, but through hard times financially, when buckets passed round at matches to pay the team’s wages. And that says a lot. Bonds are strong when folk don’t have much money, and dip into their pockets to pay team wages.
There are many examples of brands repositioning to attract wider audiences and improve performance. Hull City AFC, like all clubs, evolved over generations, inspired, almost entirely, by ownership, management and team changes.
There are also examples of other brands totally transforming without changing name. Witness for example, Lucozade.
Brand renaming examples
There are football clubs that have also changed name, lost their fan bases (Wimbledon FC), yet were born again with a new fan base (MK Dons). And also brands that rose from the ashes of such changes (AFC Wimbledon, the Dons). Nevertheless Hull City is the Tigers. The words “City” and “the Tigers” are interchangeable on the terraces and beyond, and this equity is long-standing. In overseas countries, it should therefore be possible to position the Club without changing name in order to drive local demand.
Sadly, Dr. Allam has alienated lots of supporters and it is unclear how many he has attracted overseas. Football clubs belong to supporters, largely local communities, as well as owners. The supporters and owners are also part of the brand – not the brand itself. Dr. Allam’s investment is welcomed but his tone is not. What the fans are really rejecting is Dr. Allam’s arrogance and implied transience.
It also helps to remember lessons from the change in the East Yorkshire county name. In 1974, East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire were forcibly changed to Humberside. For the next 22 years those who moved away sent letters home to their old addresses. Thus, in 1996, Humberside was abolished and the original county names restored.
What’s equally odd is that there is no commercial evidence to support a change. While there are now a few who are putting their heads above the parapet expressing support for the change, their claims appear subjective. This therefore suggests they may be PR inspired (4). Without hard-nosed evidence to the contrary the case for a brand renaming appears flimsy.
Brands are not just about names and design
Perhaps Dr. Allam has been seduced into announcing a name change by a new design idea. Taking a look at the present badge, it is easy to imagine the streamlining possibilities in dropping the AFC. This is how designers think. There may also be a small Google ranking benefit, and page view increase, by funneling Hull City and the Tigers searches into a single Hull City Tigers url. But this may be undermined if it changes again.
Some say the name change is a sublime masterplan to build awareness? Whatever the answer, success in the home market will require a change of tone and also a credible message. It is not too late to ‘fess up’.
1. There is more to branding than brand naming. Branding, like marketing is widely misunderstood. Further brands are not just logos or design elements. Marketers must never forget this point and help others understand.
2. Brands live in the hearts and minds of customers – the supporters. They are the summation of all thoughts and feelings; including memories; through tough times and good.
3. Football club brands have symbiotic relationships with communities. Clubs represent communities, communities support clubs. Thus the brand is a shared interest and experience. The community is also part of the experience i.e. part of the brand. As a result, supporters have strong relationships with clubs; they wear the kit, the colours etc. Everything that the brand stands for runs though supporters like a stick of rock. It signals I’m like you, and I also share your beliefs, hopes, and fears.
4. Changing brand names for community embedded brands should be undertaken with caution. There is a risk of destroying community engagement. When an owner dictates a course of action it signals, someone or something has different beliefs, personality traits. It signals that I’m not like you and thus it detracts from the shared brand experience.
5. It is dangerous to make decisions on gut-feel, dangerous to invent spurious logic to support an idea, and also dangerous not to be transparent. It is better to use research and evidence to make decisions. In turn, this ensures that all risks and pitfalls are identified and mitigated.
6. The start-point is to think about the perceptions brands wish to create. To build on strengths and also refine weaknesses. Perceptions are created by the product – the team and the team performance. Perceptions can also be influenced by promotion and without changing names. This partly explains why the advertising industry is a multi-billion business ;-).
7. If you seek free publicity, stir up a storm in a teacup.
(1) Dr. Assem Allam is a successful entrepreneur. Born in Egypt, he studied at Hull University in the 1960s and decided to stay in the City of Hull. His business Allam Marine supplies and sells generators. At number 214 in the Sunday Times Rich List, and a philanthropist, he has made donations to Hull FC, the University of Hull and Hull Truck Theatre Co. among others.
(4) The work of a public relations company