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Brand Lessons from Alex Ferguson's global tribe

With the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United Football Club will lose their leader, their spokesman and their talisman of almost 27 years.

What Ferguson did brilliantly at Man U was to internalise, and eventually come to represent, the core values buried deep in the club’s DNA. The resulting energy and passion that increasingly radiated out from the core of the club over the past 27 years has played a key role in the creation of what is arguably the most successful sporting franchise in history.

The football club has become more than a brand. It’s become more than a transactional business selling tickets and merchandise; in reality it’s become more than just a football club. What Ferguson understood very well is that in the minds of its supporters, Manchester United is a cause, an unending campaign. 

Man U fans aren’t just supporters, they’re proactive campaigners. Across the world people who may have never seen a game proudly show off the club insignia. So what insight can we draw from this ability to create such a passionate global tribe?

There are a number of key factors that relate directly to the creation of such devotion and engagement in this case. Manchester United has created a relationship with its followers that transcends the purely transactional; it inspires people to come on an aspirational journey with the promise of being part of something great.

1) Identify an enemy- Two key tenets of the Manchester United philosophy revolve around attacking play, and constant adversity. In this environment, it pays to know who the enemy is.

And it’s interesting to note how many times Sir Alex altered his focus on who the specific bad guys have been. Newcastle United often found themselves in his cross hairs, while more recently Chelsea and Manchester City have become targets. A tribe needs a reason to be passionate; an enemy to unite against.

2) Create a noble purpose – It’s not clear whether Sir Alex has taken a noble personal stand on any of the issues currently facing football. But what mattered to his tribe was his utter commitment to winning.

Manchester United’s, and Ferguson’s, purpose was to become the greatest football club in the world. What could be nobler to a football lover than excellence in the face of adversity?

3) Be honest – To be inspiring, a sense of purpose must be believable and clearly based on the core values of the brand and the convictions of the people at the top.

Ferguson worked perfectly in this regard, clearly motivated to excel and achieve at the highest levels. His personality and his values were a perfect mesh with the Man U brand, and this clear honesty bred total credibility. No one in the set up was pretending to be something they weren’t; they were all clearly obsessive about winning.

4) Maintain an evangelical core – “To win, you need eight players in the rhythm and the good spirit,” Ferguson told L'Equipe in 2009. “Then, they can carry the other three.” He understood the importance of a core team of evangelists, in the same interview likening himself to ‘the keeper of the temple’. 

The centre of a tribe must be evangelical because that intensity diminishes the further away from the core you travel. The famous Fidel Castro quote of the same theme reads, “I began revolution with 82 men. If I had to do it again, I do it with 10 or 15 and absolute faith. It does not matter how small you are if you have faith and plan of action.”

As star players have come and gone, it’s Sir Alex who has remained the focal point of Manchester United’s evangelism for over two and a half decades, and for his successor David Moyes, maintaining the same level of intensity and energy will be very important if he is to drive the same style of brand identity in the long term.

5) Create a rallying cry -  For Moyes, turning the club’s noble purpose, ‘win everything’, into a memorable call to action; a battle cry, could be a useful way to stamp his mark on the brand without immediately attempting to provide a like-for-like replacement for Ferguson’s evangelical focus.

The outgoing Scotsman was certainly better known for his dour determination and blistering touchline rage, than for any kind of “Yes we can” Obama-style rallying cry. Provided it plays into the key tenets of Man U philosophy, such a tool could prove useful for a guy who will need all the help he can get.

But what use is a football club as a case study for brands out in the wider world? Our work with numerous B2C brands has begun to divulge a trend that makes this story all the more relevant for businesses in almost every sector.

There’s growing resentment towards brands that sit on the side-lines amid the upset and uncertainty around austerity and economic turmoil. The organisations making real headway in the current climate are the ones that are prepared to engage in making peoples’ lives better or helping them achieve their aspirations – those that are prepared to take on a social purpose.

In this environment, people are more likely to engage with brands that make them feel part of something bigger than themselves. In this way, perhaps more brands should start to think about borrowing some of the lessons of Sir Alex Ferguson.

Stop thinking of their relationship with consumers as transactional and create a cause people will be inspired by; something that has a set of objectives over and above just flogging stuff.

Lisa Killbourn is Chief Strategy Officer at Bray Leino

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