Benjamin Li
Mar 18, 2014

Manchester United scores well with Asian fans

ASIA-PACIFIC - The 135-year-old English football club Manchester United has built an very emotional bonding with its fans. Inside the Old Trafford Stadium hangs a flag that says “United, kids, wife in that order", depicting where the fans' priorities lie. Many Asian fans, who've never been to Britain, share the same passion. Why?

Jamie Reigle
Jamie Reigle

Campaign Asia-Pacific  paid a visit to Jamie Reigle, Asia-Pacific MD for the club, at the Manchester United office in Hong Kong earlier this month, which has the ambience of a private Gentlemen’s Club with a mini gallery of photos, the Club’s tee shirts and memorabilia. As brand awareness is not really a problem for Manchester United, Reigle shared the secrets of sustaining the club's success in Asia.

Which country in Asia has the biggest Manchester United fan base?

In general Asia-Pacific is very important, it accounts for half of our fan base: 325 million out of the 650 million are in Asia-Pacific, and each country has very unique characteristics and therefore requires a tailored approach to each market.

There are subtle differences in each market. Are people interested in watching live sports in that market or not? If they do watch live sports, where does football sit in relation to other sports? Are they more focused on their local clubs or international clubs?

If I look at the market like Hong Kong with 7 or 8 million people, about 40 per cent of the population follow football, have an interest in football and of that approximately 2 million people would say that either Manchester United is their favourite team or one of the other teams that they follow.

Hong Kong has some local clubs but are not very matured, hence Hong Kong is a very strong market for Manchester United because there is relatively little competition and there is this tradition that people are interested in British football.

Whereas in Indonesia, football is clearly the number one sport with no particularly strong local team, and ManU is absolutely number one. We have 50 million followers in Indonesia out of a population of 250 million people.

If I compare that with Japan and China, it is a very different situation. Japan is an incredibly advanced economy. Sports is an important part of Japanese culture, but their emphasis tends to be on baseball (which is their number one sport) followed by sumo and then football, and there is also a general association with individual sports and the individual hero.

With 125 million people, we had 4 million followers in Japan, but with Shinji Kagawa, who is a Japanese football star, joining us two years ago, we now have 8 million fans.

In China, clearly football is very popular and is growing among younger people in particular. It too has a culture where people focus on individual Chinese athletes, and that can be in table tennis or in diving or Li Na in tennis. In addition, team sports like basketball are very popular. We have 100 million followers in China, which is a huge number in absolute terms but relatively small with a population of 1.4 billion.

What are your unique selling points to brands?

Apart from huge audience base and fans, we deliver positive brand association. So when people think about Manchester United, they would associate us as global, successful, stable with long history, and youth, and those are things that companies want to be associated with.

We also provide unique access to our players for events, films or TV commercials. Together the media value, brand value, and the access to our players allow us to operate like a marketing agency specialized in Manchester United.

Could you give us a recent example of how you work with brands and agencies?

We are having a partnership with Mindshare, which is responsible for Unilever’s marketing activities in SE Asia, They wanted to find one marketing partner that could help them to promote all of Unilever's brands like Clear, Dove, and Dirt is Good.

The campaign started six months ago. How do we get more young men to buy these products in stores, with Manchester United’s images, logos, players at the point of sale to capture their attention?

CV: Jamie Reigle

  • 2012-present Manchester United, managing director, APAC
  • 2007-2012 Manchester United, director of corporate development
  • 2001-2004 The Carlyle Group
  • 2001-2004 J.P. Morgan

As for the laundry product, the importance of mothers’ relationship with children in terms of motivating and encouraging them to do what they think is important as parents, like going to school, studying hard and having a good healthy lifestyle. Unilever uses the Manchester United soccer school as the means to get mothers to engage more with their children.

As part of the partnership, we bring Manchester United coaches to the markets. Two high-profile examples that we have done in the last six months [are] one in Manila and one in Jakarta, both markets that are integral to the Manchester United and Unilever partnership.

For example, in Manila they have this Clear Dream match, an existing football match that searches for the best players and stars in the Philippines. They wanted to make it more exciting and wanted us to bring Manchester United coaches to the Philippines to help them to select the best players. And some of the young players will also have an opportunity go to the UK to train at our facility. Some of our former players will go to Manila to play in the game live on TV this June, and this is a annual activity.

So that is a good integrated marketing example that is working for Manchester United – using our brand, soccer school, legends to create big brand awareness. But, the way to enter the competition, you have to buy a bottle of their shampoo, so they are using it as a way to drive their sales. 

Mindshare was a big part of it, and the partnership is across nine markets (Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines, Cambodia Laos, Vietnam, Myanmar). That is a multi-billion-dollar business for Unilever and they have a huge marketing budget. They were looking to do something that is consistent across all nine markets.

What other new partnerships has the Club signed?

This year Aeroflot, the national carrier for Russia, will be our global airline partner for the next five years. They are making a big push in terms of brand building, to grow their brand and improve their brand image outside of Russia in the build up to the World Cup in Russia in 2018, as they want more people to come to Russia for the World Cup.

Chevrolet after Aon will be on the shirts starting next season. Manchester United has been partnering with Aon since 2010. Chevrolet will become the shirt’s sponsor, and they are paying over US$500 million over seven years. Compared to General Motors, Chevrolet’s parent company, spends over US$4 billion on advertising every year, and in that context it does not seem so big.

Aon will continue to sponsor our training kit and our training facility. It is about different messaging, when they first started most people had not heard about Aon, they were looking for brand awareness so that people would know who they are, and Manchester United was an effective way.

The key way we try to build the brand is by partnering with really good companies who have a clear mission or objectives, and those objectives could be very different.

Apart from your TV broadcasting rights, what is your presence in social media?

Manchester United's branded Facebook page has 43 million likes globally, about 18 million of that in Asia-Pacific. Indonesia is 5 million. Technology is facilitating a much closer relationship between the club and the fans.

In China, we have Weibo in Sina and Tencent, we have approximately 3 million fans, but we only started those six months ago.

Of course compared to 1.4 billion people in China, 3 million fans is small, but those people are young, tend to be more educated and a bit wealthier and possibly have a smartphone. In terms of a demography set, it is interesting for us as a club but also for commercial partners, that is very powerful ability to connect with those people.

In social media, Google+, we just invested a lot of resources last year. We partnered with Google from the technology perspective to be able to let a certain number of fans be live in the stadium on a screen [around the edge of the field] and to have them talking and sending messages live to show their players that they are supporting them during the 16 March Liverpool versus Manchester United match.

Google is trying to promote Google+ as a valuable social network, as an alternative to Facebook. But what we have with our fans is the passion for the product, so this is the great way to be able to showcase their innovation. What we are able to do is to allow our fans access to the club, something they have never been able to do before.

What are your challenges with your marketing team in Asia?

Two challenges, one is trying to get the team in Asia to focus on the most exciting ideas. We have literally hundreds of proposals that come across our desks. Making sure that we focus on the right ones and be consistent with our brand that we think would be successful. That is what we are all about.

Second thing is coming out with new ideas to grow the brand. We need to be able to grow revenue through sponsorship, media and merchandise sales.

Why pick Hong Kong as your first overseas outpost?

We opened a regional hub office in Hong Kong in July 2012. This is the first office outside the UK in our 135 year of history, apart from our UK office, we had never opened an office in any market, let alone in Asia. So this is the first overseas initiative.

We thought Hong Kong is the best geographic hub for the region with its central location. It has access to frankly smart and good people with a very international outlook.

China is very important market for us, but we did not feel we are ready to open up in China right away. We felt that Hong Kong would give us a better opportunity or place to learn about Mainland Chinese market.

Your accent is not British, tell us a bit about your background?

I am Canadian and previously worked for JP Morgan and Carlyle Group (private equity venture capital company). I joined Manchester United in 2007 and had a number of roles in the club in the UK office for five years, one was on financing and capital structure. The second focus is commercial strategy—sponsorship, media, licensing and retail. And in 2012, they asked me to move to Hong Kong to set up the business in Asia.

We often think about Manchester United as more than just a football club. It is a brand. We look at the best company in each industry as our benchmark or inspiration, and we are always trying to look at this thing called football with a different perspective.

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