German soccer giants Borussia Dortmund have developed a reputation as one of Europe’s trend-setting clubs.
Indeed, a stoic commitment to their youth system has made the eight-time German champions a fashionable choice for neutrals outside of Germany, and many see them as an embodiment of the Bundesliga’s fan-friendly approach, free of the financial excesses that have come to be associated with the likes of the Premier League and La Liga. It is that reputation – as 'the people’s club' - that Dortmund are not only keen to maintain, but also to grow and enhance internationally.
A big part of that growth began in 2014, when Dortmund announced that they would be opening their first office outside of Germany in Singapore, making them the first German club to set foot in the Asian market. Suresh Letchmanan, Dortmund’s Asia Pacific managing director, describes Singapore as “the gateway to the rest of Asia”, and says that the club’s decision to set up shop in the Southeast Asian country was also aided by the local presence of their main partners, Evonik and Puma, and the German Football League (DFL).
“The whole idea of having an office in Asia was because the club felt it was the right time for them to go out and be internationalised,” says Letchmanan. “We started with casting the net wide and seeing what response we got. The first thing we needed to do was be seen, be popular and be loved – those were the three elements that we emphasised for Asia.”
Launching their Asian operation in 2014 meant Dortmund could feed off of Germany’s success at that year’s Fifa World Cup in Brazil, where six of the team’s players featured in the country's tournament-winning squad. Within a year of opening, Southeast Asia – particularly Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam – had been established as target markets, while Letchmanan says that Dortmund identified an opportunity to use soccer to “bridge the relationship culturally between Germany and China.”
“When we started going into these markets in the second year,” he adds, “we saw there were so many Dortmund fans, and social media helped us out because there were a lot of unofficial fan clubs, and we started regulating in such a way that we could have one common fan club where they could promote their activities with the club.
“We know there are fans here, but a lot of fans are hiding skeletons in their closets, meaning they might support a Manchester United or a Liverpool, but they are also fans of Dortmund. We want to change that mindset and get them to be Dortmund supporters first and foremost.”
Suresh Letchmanan (pictured), Dortmund’s Asia Pacific managing director, describes Singapore as “the gateway to the rest of Asia”
Dortmund’s move to Asia might have been a first for a club in Germany, but the region has long been seen as a major target market for a host of European powerhouses. Premier League teams have made a habit of visiting Asia for their pre-season tours, whilst a recent Red Card study found that Manchester United are the most popular team online in China.
Despite that, though, Letchmanan maintains that there is still plenty of space in the market, and believes that Dortmund’s fan-first approach is something that will resonate with the Asian population.
“I think the Premier League has had a 20 to 25-year head start compared to everyone else, so I think it’s a bit of a catch-up phase for us,” he says. “We’re not competing though; we run our own race and have our own strategy in terms of achieving our results, KPIs and objectives.
“I think by and large, what we are trying to do is reach the fans. This is a people’s club, and what we do is promote and try to bridge the relationship between the fans and the club, and that relationship is getting ever closer – whatever is done in Germany is replicated in this part of the world.”
Dortmund have toured Asia relentlessly in recent years as the club bids to increase it profile in the region
Dortmund already host regular viewing parties in Asia in association with their regional partners, while they also fly out former players to make appearances and host training camps. Unsurprisingly though, Letchmanan reveals that the club has generated most interest when the first team visits the region. So far, Dortmund have ventured to Singapore, Malaysia and Japan in 2015, China in 2016, and then last year tied in another trip to China with a stop in Japan.
As well as pre-season visits, Dortmund arranged a trophy tour across Southeast Asia after winning the DFB Pokal cup competition in 2017. Letchmanan points out that when the trophy arrived to a frenzied reception in Vietnam - where data shows that the club has 620,000 followers - it wasn’t cased in glass or behind a velvet rope, but rather out in the open for fans to get up close and personal with.
“We don’t want to replicate what they [the Premier League] have done,” says Letchmanan. “I think our approach needs to be on a step-by-step basis. We need to do it organically and holistically, and we need to identify what the source of our objectives is.
“The Premier League clubs are coming here quite frequently, but we need to balance our traditions as well. Being seen in Asia is a good thing, but we also have to reciprocate in terms of how we can maintain the traditional aspects of the club and maintain some cultural presence as well in and around the world.
“I know some of the other clubs do the same, but we try to be a little bit more personable. A lot of the people don’t have a chance to visit Dortmund, so we export that adrenaline into the markets here in Asia.”
Being seen in Asia is a good thing, but we also have to reciprocate in terms of how we can maintain the traditional aspects of the club
The Kagawa effect
Dortmund have fostered a strong following in Japan, owing in no small part to Shinji Kagawa. The Japanese midfielder returned for a second spell at the Westfalenstadion in 2014 following an unsuccessful two-year stint in England with United, and was one of the team’s better performers during the 2017/18 season.
The club is quick to assert, however, that Kagawa doesn’t merely serve as a face to fill billboards across Asia. Dortmund recruited Kagawa from then second division Japanese club Cerezo Osaka back in 2010, and youth development and recruitment comprise one of their major strategies in Asia. The idea then, is not simply to view the 29-year-old from a commercial perspective, but to make him a symbol for young Asian players with aspirations of playing at the top level in Europe.
“We’re not here to bring in a national talent and start selling merchandise,” says Letchmanan. “Kagawa contributes to the team and deserves to be in the team. The club decided to take him because of his qualities as a footballer, and he’s shown those over the last few years and has proven that he is a top player.
“Having him here with the club going to the Asian market does do an awful lot for us, but not just in Japan, because he represents Asia as a whole. So when we go to markets like Indonesia, China and other parts of Southeast Asia, everyone recognises him, and it fuels a belief that some of Dortmund's youth players could eventually come from Asia.”
Shinji Kagawa is very well recognised in Asia but the club want him to inspire others from the region to pursue their goals in soccer rather simply act as a marketing tool
Making it count
When it comes to boosting Dortmund’s coffers, Letchmanan identifies merchandise, sponsorship, broadcast and youth programmes as the four main revenue streams for the club in Asia. Dortmund already have more than 20 partners in the region, and monetising that side of the business will be aided by the recent decision to introduce virtual advertising in the Bundesliga, allowing different brands to occupy the same space on LED boards while reaching different markets.
“It’s difficult to get everyone and anyone on your digital boards in Dortmund, but having virtual advertising is a game-changer,” says Letchmanan. “Bangkok Airways, for example, is one of our partners, but their branding around the stadium is only territorial. But now, anyone who is watching in their target region can see the visibility of their brand on the advertising boards as well.”
The competition between the leagues will obviously be there, but in terms of Dortmund as a club, I think we will be one that everyone should take note of
Beyond that, there is an increased focus on the digital side to create localised content for the club’s global magazine show and social media. Letchmanan says that the team in Singapore is constantly monitoring Facebook, Twitter and Instagram so that they can feed relevant posts back to Germany for the social media team to share across all of the club’s channels. On top of that, Dortmund also create special social posts featuring their players to share with relevant markets during celebrations in Asia such as Chinese New Year, Diwali and Eid.
“It’s so important that the activities that are seen here are also being appreciated back in Germany,” says Letchmanan. “That sort of gives the fans a chance to be a part of the club, and they feel really close to us when we embrace the different customs that are in place in different Asian territories.”
If one thing is certain, it's that Dortmund's activities in Asia are being geared towards ensuring that the perception of them as the people’s club is something that translates across the region, and while Letchmanan is keen to emphasise that they are running their own race for now, he remains confident that they will soon close the gap on teams with a more established footprint in Asia.
“I’m confident that we will grow tremendously,” he says. “The club has such a soft spot in everyone’s hearts, and in terms of the intensity of the club and how we are perceived in Asia, everyone likes Dortmund.
“So long as we have sporting success - and that replicates off the pitch - I think the gap between the leagues will eventually narrow down, but I wouldn’t say 15 years down the road is when we will reach similar to what the Premier League is doing right now – I know we are much closer than that.
"So there’s a good story to tell, and I think the competition between the leagues will obviously be there, but in terms of Dortmund as a club, I think we will be one that everyone should take note of."
Letchmanan believes that Dortmund are catching their rivals in the Asian market