It is one of life’s great conundrums that in the fickle, febrile, highly competitive 21st century reality-TV dominated world we inhabit, Chelsea Football Club possesses the ultimate in the type of brand allegiance that multi-national conglomerates covet and throw trillions of pounds at trying to secure.
‘Where were you when you were sh*t?’ It’s only the regional accents uttering this tiresome diatribe that change with every game. Surely it’s only a matter of time before our Champions League opponents catch on … in fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised if I saw a banner proclaiming the fabled message unfurled by the fanatical followers of Olimpiacos when I enter the Geórgios Karaïskákis Stadium along with a couple of thousand other intrepid Blues fans next month. It should look something like this … πού ήσαστε όταν ήσαστε περίττωμα … chuckled Spiros, the Rottenham Dropspur loving proprietor of Kebab King my local Greek take-away, but not before I’d reminded him of the shortcomings of his own adopted football team. ‘Nicolas Anelka clap clap clap clap clap!’
In my time following the Blues I have witnessed three relegations and been corralled in the Shed by a despotic former Chairman with a bushy white beard who thought that an electric fence was the solution to the hooligan problems which beset the Club in the 80s. Remember that T-Shirt? The one that bore the legendary slogan, ‘You can’t ban a Chelsea fan’ … Like many, I wore mine with pride. What price loyalty then? I’ve been rained on, spat at, kicked in the unmentionables by a police horse and endured season after season of relentless disappointment to say nothing of paying through the nose for some of the worst examples of the humble steak and kidney pie ever offered up for human consumption. In 1986, when Pates went up to lift the Members Cup … I was there … it was salvation! An oasis in a desert of mediocrity. ‘Where were you when you were sh*t?’ Ha ha ha don’t make me laugh.
That’s loyalty for you, that’s why the allegiance of Chelsea’s core fan-base will remain undiminished and unfazed by those who would seek to undermine and discredit the Club and its supporters. Many old-school supporters like myself have watched with interest as Chelsea in the Abramovich era has rapidly risen as a global brand driven by a simple vision: by 2014 Chelsea wants to be recognised internationally as the world’s number one football club. It’s interesting how the marketing gurus have defined the Club’s brand values as excellence, style, leadership, integrity, pride and unity … pride and unity eh, that’s what being a True Blue is all about anyway isn’t it?
Didier Drogba was an integral part of the Jose Mourinho team feted for winning trophies. His goals for the Blues gave him authority and respect and the Special One was always crisply dismissive of any speculation that the player might be allowed to leave. The Portugeezers controversial and hasty departure last September coupled with injury and the timing of the African Cup of Nations at which the Ivorian will lead his country may well mean that we have all but seen the last of him if we are to believe what we read in the papers last week. “It comes from me, I said what I am thinking, that I wanted to leave,” Drogba said. “Mourinho’s departure didn’t help. To the contrary, it made my desire to leave even bigger. I am not going to speak about my next club and my major objective is the ACN [African Cup of Nations] and winning all the interests we have to win when I’ll return for Chelsea.”
That’s as maybe, but it doesn’t resonate too well with Blues fans who want to see players playing for Chelsea for whom playing for Chelsea actually means something. Joe Cole, Frank Lampard, John Terry, Wayne Bridge even Steve Sidwell … these are the players for whom the cult of Chelsea actually means a little bit more than a hundred grand a week plus meal-ticket.
Peter Kenyon tells us that the Chelsea FC brand aims to offer fans success, style, passion and loyalty, the very values that underpin our relationship with the club. I wonder if this formed any part of the discussion with new £15 million signing Nicolas Anelka? I suspect not. The move makes Anelka the most expensive footballer in history with combined transfer fees of £85 million, beating the previous record of £77m for Juan Sebastian Veron, the former Argentina midfielder who also enjoyed a brief unsuccessful sojourn at Stamford Bridge. It is a statistic which does not breed confidence amongst those who favour stability, though I am prepared to give the Frenchman the benefit of the doubt. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see Nic settle into the striker’s role, become a hero to the fans and be handed the Number 9 shirt at the start of the season. Surely I can’t be the only person who finds the sight of an also ran midfielder wearing the 9 shirt a disgrace to the memory of the late great Peter Osgood?
It’s the little things like this that foster loyalty and respect amongst supporters and there have been others. At the time of the change of ownership Chelsea had diversified into other businesses such as hotels, restaurants, a travel company and a leisure club under the rightly vilified Chelsea Village identity. Swiftly after the takeover by Roman Abramovich in 2003, there was been a high-profile re-branding around the core business of football. The club’s identity was also repositioned. After years of lobbying and petitioning, the unpopular Millwall lion-esque club badge, introduced by Captain Birdseye Bates, was thankfully abandoned to universal fan acclaim an act which also had a key business function in terms of copyright and protection of marks in the international market.
Successful performances on the football field have allowed Chelsea’s ambitions to develop its brand as a world force. The business plan based on global visibility through traditional and new media penetration, market-leading sponsor partners like Adidas and Samsung, fan engagement and market legacy is being executed with militaristic precision. There are those of us who joke about the Johnny Come-Latelys and tourists who flock to Bridge but the phenomenal facts are that Chelsea’s UK fan base grew from 1million to 3.8million in the first three years of the Abramovich regime whilst the European fan base (including the UK) has grown from 10.6million to 19.2million in a similar timeframe. I can only assume that the results of the Sports Marketing survey from which this information was gleaned must have fallen into the hands of the ‘where were you when you were sh*t?’ brigade who are making the assumption that a percentage of the 2.8million ‘new’ Chelsea fans must be inside any stadium where the Blues turn out to play.
Going forward, Chelsea has identified three key target markets, London, North America and Asia, specifically China, which it will come as no surprise to read are all also vital markets to the club’s partners, Samsung and adidas. In these markets Chelsea has embarked on significant local partnerships. In London, Chelsea was the first Premiership team to back the 2012 Olympic bid and was recently nominated an official ambassador for London by the Mayor. In China, Chelsea is entering into a co-operation agreement with the Chinese Football Association and with the Asian Football Confederation. In America, there is an alliance with AEG, the operator of four teams in Major League Soccer and one of the world’s leading sports and entertainment companies.
With all this activity I imagine that the next Sports Marketing survey commissioned by Mr Kenyon will show a further exponential growth in Chelsea’s fan base which I assume will ultimately result in the sale of more replica shirts and more mobile phones. Great, as long as the board of directors remember that Chelsea’s fundamental product and service is playing and selling tickets for first-team matches at Stamford Bridge, and for matches involving the club at other grounds. Loyalty of support is dependent on the successful execution of this offering more so than global brand building or the admirable corporate social responsibility programme in which Chelsea is also engaged.
The home Champions League tie with Rosenborg earlier in the season was a prime example of what can happen when a club forgets its raison d’être. Tickets for the unattractive fixture were over-priced restricting the gate to under 25,000. The grumbling die-hards attended, of course we did, but it was a clear message to the board that ‘new’ Chelsea, the very fan base the Club is seeking to nurture was disenchanted. Peter Kenyon has always struck me as a man who likes the smell of his own farts, but even he rapidly realised that a half empty stadium sends out the wrong kind of signal to the burgeoning legion of Blues fans watching on TV in any one of the 195 countries we are led to believe they live in.
Down came Champions League ticket prices! Domestic cup matches have been fairly priced and the magnanimous gesture of subsidising train travel to certain away matches has been well received. It’s all about good customer relationship management at the end of the day Mr Kenyon. It doesn’t take too much to keep us happy, you see we love Chelsea and we will always love Chelsea no matter who is wearing the beloved Blue shirt or how indifferently the team is playing. Remember not to forsake us as you go about building the global CFC brand, because you cannot put a price on our loyalty to Chelsea Football Club.
See you at the game!
Mark Worrall is the author of cult terrace classics ‘Over Land and Sea’ and ‘Blue Murder … Chelsea till I die’, his new book ‘One Man Went to Mow’ will is published on January 15th 2008. Copies, signed if you so wish, are available to buy with a discount of up to 30% and free postage within the UK at www.overlandandsea.net