For 21 years now I have been a fan of a football club or rather more accurately, more than a club (més que un club), FC Barcelona. I watched the players week in week out while growing up as an aspiring professional footballer. That went down the drain. Today I am what ad agencies refer to as a brand planner. So, I will attempt to put my emotions aside (as much as possible but I’m sure you’ll see them pop up occasionally) and address the topic from a purely strategic point of view as if FC Barcelona were my client.
With recently elected Club President Jose Maria Bartomeu now pushing for a renewed shirt sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways for the 2016-17 season, voices supporting and opposing within the same family have surfaced again. Politics, club affinities and biases aside, what does this potential sponsorship renewal mean for the FC Barcelona brand?
In a time where football is an industry (as opposed to the old days when passion, commitment and loyalty actually meant something in the game – I warned you that it will pop up), FC Barcelona is one of the very few if not the only club that still stands for something more than revenues generated by global “fans”. FC Barcelona is “more than a club” in Catalonia because it is the sports club that most represents the country (seeking independence) and is also one of its greatest ambassadors and accordingly the club defines the following as the values that drive its presence and success:
Respect: “Respect for others is one of the basic requirements of democratic life and the capacity to live in society.”
Effort: “…effort is a value that can take us to unthinkable heights and lead us to achieve targets and objectives that may at other times appear distant or inaccessible.”
Ambition: “Ambition is the desire to achieve the maximum performance… It involves use of a web of values as varied as excellence, patience, discipline, order, motivation and responsibility.”
Teamwork: “Teamwork implies that the subject forms part of a group and that, as a member of the same, becomes an active element that acts on behalf of the whole (sometimes even to the determine of their own individuality).”
Humility: “We are all aware of how FC Barcelona has dealt with its victories of recent years, and how it has always shown humility (and also such values as effort, rigour, responsibility and others) to win respect in its field, and among its opponents, and generally everyone.”
These values were fully embodied by the club for over a century. No question. You would sense it on the field between the players, in the stadium between the players and the fans and in the museum as you walk through decades of history from WWI, WWII, the Spanish civil war and on till today. The brand behavior was also consistent with the its values – FC Barcelona was the only club to have never worn a sponsor on their shirt except for UNICEF and that was as part of a partnership between the club and UNICEF to help promote the wellbeing of children around the world. Too good to be true, wasn’t it?
In December 2010, led by then president Sandro Rosell, FC Barcelona worked a deal with Qatar Foundation to be the club’s first ever paying kit sponsor. It came as a shock to everyone but, to a certain extend it was still understandable as Qatar Foundation is technically and NGO (or semi-governmental as it is headed by the royal family) and carries similar values (in principle) with FC Barcelona. Yet, little did we know that this would would only serve as a gateway for Qatar Airways to take over and replace the previous Qatari entity. Considering the manner by which the country functions and its dynamics, these sponsorships, albeit Qatar Airways or Qatar Foundation might as well be just be Qatar “anything” because they aim to advertise the State to the world and not the actual organizations and their services. Now, you might ask: Why is this a problem? The club’s strategy naturally changed and expanded into a global brand and has leveraged additional sources of revenue to sustain steady growth and expansion. That’s fine (says the strategist in me, but morally and ethically reprehensible for the fan in me).
Here’s the problem; a brand like FC Barcelona must partner with a likeminded brand, a brand that shares similar values which are translated in the brand’s language and behavior, ones that have attracted, retained and grew fans around the world – something that is very much not Qatar.
The south-west Asian rich oil state has been heavily criticized around the world for human rights violations, bribery and funding extremism. Please let me make it crystal clear that I am in no position to confirm or deny these allegations, but the mere fact remains that they are out there and that this is an ongoing discussion in the world today makes it enough to avoid. These allegations are as far from respect, effort, ambition, teamwork and humility as possible, to say the least! Should FC Barcelona management decide to carry on with this strategy of global sponsorship deals, they must look into ones with brands such as Toms, P&G or even IKEA among many others as they maintain more consistency with the club, its values and more importantly its most important asset, the fans.
The bottom-line: as it stands, and from a strategic point of view, chapeaux- bas Qatar, faux pas FC Barcelona. A brand like FC Barcelona is exactly what the Qatar needs if it is to revamp and patch up its image around the world. However, for my make-believe client, FC Barcelona, continuing down that path will shift the core brand idea from “more than a club” to “merely an investment”.