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Blackburn Rovers, Venky’s and Steve Kean – how not to run a brand

May 8, 2012
Blackburn Rovers Badge

Blackburn Rovers – proud football club relegated under owners Venky’s

Today I am taking a step back from writing about brand strategy for publishers by focusing on the calamity which has befallen Blackburn Rovers, the historic Lancashire club I have supported for nearly 25 years and which is also one of the few teams to have won the English Premiership. There are lessons a-plenty here for how not to run a brand. Let’s take a detailed look…

What is a brand?

There are multiple definitions for what a brand is but current thinking centres around a brand being a promise delivered: an emotional construct which matches and satisfies the desires of the customer and provides ongoing revenue to the brand owner.

A successful brand attracts and retains customers through a mix of personality, credibility and vision. This lies at the root of the Blackburn Rovers experience since the club was taken over by an Indian chicken “processing” and poultry products company, Venky’s, in 2010.

Football club brands and what makes them different

Football club brands are unlike many others – their results almost seem a substitute for the failings of life and, as has oft been said, are akin to religion in some towns and cities.

Consequently, the clubs and their results are more important to their brand stakeholders (the fans) than the brands of the owners; it is the duty of the owners to deliver aspiration via the club brand. It is well known that football club owners need to have deep pockets and the skin of a rhinoceros. But they also need commercial commonsense too.

Not forgetting club sponsors. Whether it is Emirates airlines sponsoring the Arsenal, Reebok sponsoring Bolton Wanderers or the novelty of Crown Paints sponsoring Liverpool way back when, the sponsoring brands know that it is the power of the club brand which helps project their own brands, rather than the other way round. Once an Arsenal fan, always an Arsenal fan – if the sponsor changes, it is unlikely that the fan will follow the original sponsor’s brand.

It is therefore imperative for any owner or sponsor to respect the power of the club’s brand. To nurture it, to show vision, to grow the club, to attract new fans, to retain existing ones. Since 2010, Venky’s brand strategy has manifestly failed in these key areas.

Venky’s apparent approach to managing Blackburn Rovers

Before Venky’s took over at Blackburn Rovers, the club carried a reputation for sound financial management, excellent communications with the media, focused team management and strong results. It was not the richest club, but it worked within its constraints and had built a reputation as a team difficult to beat. It generated fans from around the world.

And early promise seemed high. The Rao family which runs Venky’s promised big investment. They promised “marquee” signings such as David Beckham and Ronaldinho. They promised a top five finish in the Premier League. They promised Champions League football. They were greeted enthusiastically by the crowd. And then it started to go wrong…

Image of Steve Kean

Steve Kean, manager of Blackburn Rovers, reacts to another team performance under his leadership (courtesy BBC website)

Inexperienced management

Within weeks of Venky’s arrival, the manager of Blackburn Rovers – the widely-respected and experienced Sam Allardyce – had been sacked for reasons which are still unclear. There was talk of Diego Maradona taking over as manager; instead the Rao family (or someone at the club) chose the team’s coach – the unknown Steve Kean who had not managed a club before. In one notorious action, Venky’s used the players in a toe-curling and excruciatingly embarrassing advertisement for their own products.

One player, the son of the club’s agent, was given a contract even though he’d only played one game, as a substitute, for Aberdeen and had had a “similarly low-key spell at League One  club Leyton Orient”, according to the Guardian. Kean’s explanation was bizarre: “we feel that Myles Anderson is a player with great potential as a late developer”…

The fans began to smell a rat – after all, the last time the club had appointed a coach (Brian Kidd) instead of a manager, the club had been relegated. Unlike Brian Kidd, however, who had an excellent reputation at champions Manchester United, Steve Kean had no such reputation. Vanity, not commonsense, appeared to be running the club.

From a mid-table position when Kean took over, the club then flirted perilously with – and then narrowly avoided – relegation on the final day of the season by beating Wolverhampton Wanderers, another team in the relegation zone. Yet Venky’s stuck with Kean and over the following summer it became clear to the fans that Venky’s did not appear to have the funds to run the club effectively.

One of the club’s leading new talents, Phil Jones, was sold to Manchester United. New players brought to the club were underwhelming at best. Vision turned to dross; the first home game of the season was a defeat against Wolverhampton Wanderers. The promised top five finish and Champions League football was seen as a joke. Things began to look bad…

A season of under-delivery contrasts with contrary claims

It is a well-known statistic that a club at the bottom of the table at Christmas will be relegated come May. In December 2011, Blackburn Rovers was in this unfortunate position and so it proved to be. With an average points tally of less than one point per game was a sure indicator that the “survival” target of 40 points from 38 games was unlikely to be reached.

Yet the fans were told by the manager Steve Kean that the spirit in the dressing room was high, that there were “winnable matches” coming up, and that everyone was confident of success. But the fans could see otherwise: Chris Samba, the club’s leading defender, demanded a transfer. Junior Hoilett, one of the club’s great discovered talents, refused to sign a new contract. Many of Kean’s “winnable” games were lost.

What Kean said about results and team spirit was not matched by results and what fans could see of team loyalty from core players. It is “message disconnect” of this nature which causes brand collapse. British Leyland tried to say they made great cars; customer experience said otherwise. Owners, marketers and brand strategists owe it to the consumer to ensure that promise is matched by delivery.

Failure to remedy this disconnect causes brand collapse. British Leyland, after all, no longer exists and instead its brand name is seen as a byword for unreliability and failure. For Venky’s, the risk is high indeed – Blackburn Rovers as a brand will be untarnished in the long term but Venky’s reputation in the UK will be viewed with abject contempt for decades. Just like British Leyland. One comment from an Indian Liverpool fan below the Venky’s video on You Tube says the “whole of India hates Venky’s“. Exaggeration sure, but it’s easy to see how reputations are despoiled.

Success not soundbites

Brand loyalty is generated by what is proven, not by what is promised alone. As in British politics, customers have become fed up with soundbites – they want deliverables. Fans and the press complained that there was no news coming out of Ewood Park or, at best, they had to dine on meals of spin. Trustworthy communication – a key component of brand strategy – was breaking down.

Yet Kean had an ace up his sleeve: his inconsistency meant that no-one knew how a match would turn out – a memorable win against Manchester United away contrasted with home defeats to Wolves, Bolton, Stoke and, yesterday, Wigan Athletic. This gave him some sort of benefit of the doubt.

But even here the message was clear: had they gained results from those home games – all teams against which Sam Allardyce would have achieved results – the team would have been comfortably in mid-table at the end of the season.

It is for these reasons that the fans felt that Kean was delusional: while results said otherwise, Kean continued to utter platitudes while cultivating a position of a dignified family man coping with unwarranted abuse. Yet this stance – playing the press at its own game – was quickly seen through by the fans; his “honest decency” was seen as yet another part of the Venky’s spin machine. Football is a results game, not a sympathy vote.

He became an increasingly lonely figure; so much so that when the team played Wigan Athletic in Wigan earlier in the season, the owners turned up from India to watch the game only to leave at half time following howls of abuse from the Blackburn fans.

Yesterday, when the team were relegated and when the owners needed to stand up and be counted, it is my understanding that the team from Venky’s was nowhere to be seen. If this is true, it is a shocking indictment of their tenure as owners. Steve Kean, the mouthpiece of the complacency which was Venky’s, was abandoned to his fate. To defend the indefensible on his own. There’s loyalty for you, as they say in Wales…

How Venky’s brand strategy for Blackburn Rovers failed

In taking on Blackburn Rovers as a project, Venky’s failed to understand the nature of the football club brand and, as is demonstrated by their reaction at games throughout the season, catastrophically failed their core customer base: the fans. This is a lesson for everyone responsible for brand strategy and product delivery in any business.

There are three core components of brand strategy: core offer; vision; personality.

  • In taking over Blackburn Rovers, Venky’s dismantled a functioning core offer by replacing – or appearing to sanction the replacement of –  experience and skill with youth and poor management. The core offer of regular Premier League football was removed within 18 months.
  • In offering a vision, Venky’s promised the earth at the beginning and succeeded in delivering none of their promises of top class players, a top five finish and Champion’s League football. This resulted in a huge crash of credibility among the fans.
  • And in brand personality, Venky’s managed to dismantle the appearance of the club as a friendly cotton-town club for families. Their marketing communications failed to match the fans’ experience of the brand day to day. Players were reduced to pathetic actors on corporate videos for chicken products covered in dubious sauces.

After last night’s game against Wigan Athletic, Venky’s would do well to reflect on a crowd of 26,000 (or at least the 23,000 Blackburn fans) nearly all calling for Venky’s and Kean to go. They would do well to reflect on what it means for a fan to rush to the manager and throw his season ticket on the floor in disgrace. They should reflect on the irony of a chicken dressed in Blackburn colours being released onto the pitch. They should read the many banners calling for Venky’s and Kean to go and wonder why the fans were throwing tennis balls onto the pitch with the words “Kean Out” written on them.

The response of the fans – vilified at one point by the press – is one of huge brand disconnect as a result of incompetent brand management. Even today, in the aftermath of relegation, Steve Kean insists he will be at the club next season.  Robbie Savage, the Radio 5 pundit, however, argues that Kean’s position is now untenable and last night he even argued whether Kean could manage in the Championship, let alone the Premier League. Certainly, owners like Roman Abramovitch would never have tolerated managerial performances of this calibre.

And all this while Sam Allardyce, sacked by Venky’s, has now taken West Ham United to within one game of being back in the Premiership, should they win the play off final. Sweet revenge indeed…

As a brand advocate for Blackburn Rovers, along with many thousands of others, I hope that Venky’s and Steve Kean are soon a distant – if unpleasant – memory before the summer is out. If they don’t leave, Blackburn Rovers will almost certainly be relegated again – just like the once mighty Leeds United, another club brought low by vanity, arrogance, incompetence and hubris.

Everyone who owns a brand must be very careful how it is managed. The consequences of failure are dramatic and often disastrous.

FOOTNOTE:

Since I penned this article, some information has come to light which further point to the strategic shambles at Blackburn Rovers and again which highlight the need for companies to take action rather than hesitate if results are heading in the wrong direction:

A letter from a senior Blackburn Rovers director, Paul Hunt (Deputy CEO) to owners Venky’s in December 2011

 

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