Football players have always had huge marketing value off the pitch. In fact, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez built the club’s whole strategy around it. He invented the concept of Galacticos in his first stint at the club in the early 2000s, bringing in Figo, Ronaldo, Zidane, Beckham and Robinho before repeating the trick with Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, James Rodriguez, Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos in his current spell.
But the core of that strategy was simply to drive shirt sales and build the global fan base. Since then, all major signings are accompanied by the ubiquitous "they’ve already paid for his signing with kit sales” commentary. That has never been true – the clubs get huge sponsorship fees from the sports apparel brands but only a small proportion of the kit sales.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to argue with a strategy that worked so well for Real Madrid. As Perez said at the end of his first stint as President: “I believe in emotions and spectacle, and without this magic it would not be Madrid. Thanks to this philosophy I left the club the richest in the world.”
Now Manchester United have taken that concept to a whole new level with the signing of Paul Pogba.
United created a well-prepared, coordinated, multi-brand and multi-channel campaign around the Frenchman's return to Old Trafford. They involved their key sponsors early, carving out specific opportunities for them and giving them time to plan their activity. They even gave Pogba time to visit his barber to carve the Man Utd logo into his hair.
Chevrolet got the PR image that everyone wanted: Paul Pogba arriving in Manchester and driving to the ground in one of their classic cars. Adidas were able to buy perfectly timed and perfectly placed media — on the morning the deal after was announced commuters were greeted with front page ads for the brand with Pogba front and centre.
Adidas even “accidently” leaked the story a little bit early when they published (and then deleted) a new video featuring Pogba and UK grime sensation (and United Fan) Stormzy. In this social-media driven fan culture, the best way to get something to spread fast is to leak it.
The days of new signings being introduced with a press conference and some public keepy-uppies in his new kit are also long gone. Instead, Manchester United created this slick unveil film with the production values of an ad and the #Pogback hashtag to consolidate the social media conversation.
But this kind of campaign clearly requires careful planning and advance co-ordination between the “sporting” and “marketing” operations of the club – which is rare in a world where they are often at odds with each other. Typically, if they’re lucky, sponsors might be informed of a major announcement only a few hours before it is made public.
Yet this kind of collaboration is certainly worth the effort for a club. Sponsors are given the opportunity to capitalise on a moment of huge fan engagement while Manchester United can benefit from the reach and marketing clout their sponsors will bring.
Let’s hope this establishes a new template with sponsors and rights holders working together more closely. It certainly creates more value for everyone involved. And it will even help to sell more shirts.