As if it had ever really been away, domestic soccer returns to England this weekend. The 2016/17 English Football League campaign kicks off with what was, just a few short years ago, a Premier League fixture, with Fulham FC hosting Newcastle United at their Craven Cottage stadium.
The west London venue was also the stage earlier this week for the official launch of the new season, which is the first since the Football League – the body which governs the three professional soccer tiers immediately below the Premier League in England – rebranded itself as the English Football League, to be known as the EFL across its promotional materials.
To start this latest chapter in its long and storied history, the EFL invited a representative from each of its 72 member clubs to come to Craven Cottage to participate in the launch. All 72 representatives, from all levels of involvement at the clubs – from star players like Wycombe Wanderers’ Adebayo Akinfenwa, through medical staff to tea ladies and young fans – gathered in Craven Cottage’s Riverside Stand for a “squad photo”, with the EFL’s key message being that it is a brand that offers something to everyone.
Drew Barrand, marketing director of the EFL and one of the key drivers of the body’s rebranding project, took the time to speak to SportsPro at Craven Cottage and explain the process and thinking behind it.
Let’s start with the most obvious question: Why rebrand?
I have to take you back a bit. I’ve been in this job for two years. And essentially what happened when I first was appointed, the chief executive had a very clear idea that we needed a brand refresh in that everything had become, not necessarily stale, but just a bit old and a bit lacking in relevancy. Like most brands: if you don’t do something with it relatively frequently it can become a bit dated.
There was certainly an intent from the top down that we needed to look at how we portrayed ourselves. Before I started here, one of the biggest things I had was that if you asked 100 people out in the street, “What is the Football League?”, you’d get 100 different answers. Whereas if you look at some of the most successful sports properties globally, whether it be the Premier League, the Olympics, the Champions League, it’s a very clear message around it, which can be expressed in different ways, but it’s a clear brand.
And I think what was pretty clear is that there’s lots of potential and lots of gold dust within the league but we weren’t communicating it in a consistent way – or at all, if I’m honest. In that we were relying very heavily on our broadcast partners and our sponsors to tell the story.
I came in two years ago in October, so I’ve done two full seasons essentially. We started building towards a plan pretty well towards a year after I started, and the project lasted around about nine months and ran from September 2015 through to where we are now. It was split into three phases. First phase was about research, which was talking to all of our stakeholders. So we did the biggest stakeholder engagement piece we’ve ever done in our history, in that we spoke to all of the clubs, fans, broadcasters, commercial partners, international broadcasters, other football bodies – the FA, the Premier League, the Football Supporters Federation, the League Managers Association, the Professional Footballers' Association – pretty much everybody. And we asked them a pretty simple question: What do you think of the league? What do you like about, what don’t you like about it? And we ended up coming back with a pocket of research about six inches thick.
And you look at it and go, “Where’s the golden thread? Where’s the bit that pulls it all together?” Because the answers are so diverse. And that’s where I got to in the end of it: actually, the diversity of what we offer, the breadth and the depth of it, from clubs in League 2 right the way up to the Championship, from the League Cup to the Football League Trophy, all these different elements in which we interact with people, and the different audiences that those various elements deliver to, is massively powerful, but it is so diverse. And actually where I got to was that the biggest USP about the league is that it caters for everybody.
Whatever your reasons for loving football – some people love it for trophies and three points and it’s all inspirational stuff on the pitch, and that’s fine, we’ve got that, we’ve got play-off finals, cup finals, promotion, the carrot of the Premier League and the richest game in world football, we’ve got all of that.
But other people turn up at games and follow their club because it’s part of something bigger, a bigger narrative. Whether that’s a family narrative or a local community narrative, or whether it’s simply because it’s a great opportunity for people to get involved and it’s much more accessible than other entities. It was about telling both sides of the story and I think that’s where we got to with having a simple thought at the heart of it, which was that we are a footballing experience for everybody and whatever your entry point, whatever your reason, we can deliver against that.
And why now? You obviously have a timeframe you’ve been working towards; how did you identify this season as the one to debut the new image of the EFL?
It was really about how early we could do it, lining it up with various rights cycles, making sure it worked as part of our overall strategy. We’ve done a lot of different things in the time that I’ve been in the job which has been led from our chief executive down, and looking to challenge what the existing structure was. And not do change for change’s sake but the things that needed looking at and could we make it better. We looked at everything.
We weren’t really talking to kids, so we went and did a rights deal with Nickelodeon for a Saturday morning show called Nick Kicks, so that’s been brilliant. We took our highlights package and took it out of the graveyard slot at midnight and put into prime time on Channel 5 at 9pm. We’ve looked at different ways of selling our rights.
There are any number of different things that we've been doing from both a marketing and commercial perspective, and it’s about moving the dial and getting us from where we were to where we want to be, which is ultimately more revenue for our clubs to help sustain them and enable them to grow. That’s our job. And we’ve got two things that we do for our membership. Firstly it’s to run a great competition, and makes sure its run credibly and in a positive way. And secondly it’s to grow revenue, and you do that by two ways. You grow the audience; it’s a numbers game. And you grow the perception of the brand and I guess the attraction of it for people to want to invest in it, in that it fits a purpose, has a very clear idea about what it is, and there’s that great entry point.
If you look at those as commercial objectives, when you look at a brand positioning that says, “We’re a football experience for everyone and whatever your reason for getting involved, we can offer it to you,” commercially that’s great. Because it appeals to most brands and businesses and broadcasters. Whatever they want out of it we can tap into that particular bit, and I find that hugely powerful.
You mention changing your approach toward broadcasting rights and using that to make the brand more visible. How big a part will the digital landscape play in the rebranded EFL, and how can you work with your broadcast partners to make sure they’re ‘doing digital’ in the right way?
You’ve got to work with your partners – they’re called ‘partners’ for a reason. They’re not just suppliers of a product, you sell your rights and then walk away. I think that’s a trap that a lot of rights holders and governing bodies have fallen into in the past, and nowadays you have to change your approach.
You’ve got to go where the audience is. If we’ve sold certain elements of our digital rights to Sky, that’s because we believe that that’s going to reach a massive amount of people and grow the overall audience. But obviously you want to reserve some bits back for what your want to do centrally, so it’s a working partnership but Sky are a brilliant partner for us. They’ve committed to us for the long term, they deliver great access to content for fans, and they’re doing it across all different digital platforms.
You’ve got to be realistic. We’re a rights holder with a certain amount of internal resources and capability, and they’re a great big business. So clearly they’re going to be more fit for purpose in terms of being able to deliver that message for us. But you’ve got to be realistic as well that they’re going to deliver it in accordance with their message, and I think that’s sometimes where our brand has got lost, and it’s not necessarily a finger pointing or a criticism of Sky or any number of different partners that we have, but quite rightly they’re going to put their business first and they’re using your content to drive their business.
What we want to be clear on is what that content is to enable us to be attractive to other people who might want to invest.
How closely did you work with your corporate partners, such as your title sponsor, SkyBet, on the rebrand?
I think anything that helps them to be more modern, more relevant and grow the audience is going to be a great thing for them. They’re a commercial business; they want to drive more betting revenue because that’s what they’re about.
Through the stakeholder research phase we spoke to everyone from all our partners, from chief executives down, all the way through to find out what was that made us attractive to them as a business partner, and how can we really amplify that to help them grow their revenue.
So part of that was about being fit for purpose on digital platforms, about being modern and relevant, so a lot of the thinking in terms of the new name and how it was reflected from a brand identity perspective is to enable partners to really grab hold of it and push it because we’re very aware that from a marketing channels perspective they have all of this great stuff that we would like them push our content through.
Has the rebrand enabled you to sign with further partners who’ve come on board as a result of the new brand identity?
Absolutely. This week we have announced deals with Ginsters, a renewal deal with PCUK - our charity partner who have renewed for another couple of years - and we’ve also announced a new title partner for the EFL Trophy, which will be CheckaTrade Trophy.
We’ve also renewed with SkyBet off the back of what we’re creating. It’s not the only reason they do it but it helps, and we’re a partner that takes our role very seriously and we’re not just selling rights, we’re actually partners in the truest sense of the word. And I think commercially it makes us very attractive. We’ve just signed up with two new digital suppliers.
If you look at the way that governing bodies and rights holders have been set up traditionally, they’re not necessarily set up to market themselves. Because we’ve always relied on the broadcasters and sponsors to do it for us. Increasingly, if you are outside of that top one our two tiers of rights holder, you’ve got to take more responsibility for marketing yourself because that’s what broadcasters and sponsors expect. You’ve got to work them hard, and all of this is about delivering against that.
Rights holders such as yourself have often relied on their member clubs to do a lot of the promotion of the brand. How important is it that you increasingly have ‘big’ teams such as Newcastle and Aston Villa in the EFL, and how closely did you work with the clubs during the rebrand project?
It’s great when you’ve got big clubs because obviously you’re audience increases. But it’s the bit that you can’t control, and there’s as much value in a League 2 club with a smaller audience because of the part they play in the overall narrative because we’ve got to have the breadth and depth. It’s great when we’ve got Newcastle and Villa, and that will increase our average attendances year-on-year without us doing anything, but you can’t be complacent and rely entirely on that.
The greatest strength that we’ve got is that we’ve got over 300 businesses that on a day-to-day basis are portraying our brand. 72 clubs, 200 broadcasters, domestic and overseas, 15-20 commercial partners of various degrees, and that’s before you even get into club partners and other elements. So there’s a sheer volume of businesses that have marketing channels and stakeholder engagement opportunities. If you can get them all saying the same thing, that is massively powerful. But it’s not easy. So trying to work with 300 businesses when you’re a relatively small-resourced team in terms of being a rights holder, to get that consistency, is absolutely crucial.
We asked every single one of our clubs the questions, pros and cons, what they like and don’t like. And we got all those answers back and worked hard in terms of delivering because you want a clean transition from old assets into new assets, you want them to really get behind the narrative and talk about it. Because if you’re just switching logos in and out, that’s a logo refresh, that’s not a rebrand.
It’s about identifying what that one consistent thing is, that central message, and getting the clubs to push that out and we sit here today where we’ve got every club providing us with an individual with a story to tell, so already the proof is in the pudding that they’re engaging with it, talking about it, and we’re giving them the opportunity to let their voice be heard.
Fans are fans of clubs, they’re not fans of a league. We just want them to be proud of the fact that their club takes part in our competitions. Because they’re well-run competitions and they’re great brands, and that’s the endgame.
During that research phase when you were asking the clubs and stakeholders what they did and didn’t like about the previous brand identity, what kind of responses were you getting?
One of the things that came across very strongly is that the Championship, League One and League Two as divisional brands were very strong and everybody liked those monikers and the way they were promoted, so we didn’t mess with those, we didn’t change it, it comes back to not changing things for change’s sake.
What was clear is that the Football League had a smaller role – you only have to look at it, it wasn’t even named in our properties. Whereas now when you look at the divisional logo, the brands that we’ve created, the EFL features quite prominently from a visual perspective.
They liked the bits that we’d created, where the commercial value was, but they things they didn’t like is that we perhaps weren’t being strong enough in telling a story. But it was because no-one had sat there and defined what that story was, for a number of years.
You’ve got representatives here today from managers and players at clubs all the way to tea ladies and fans, which is obviously very important to that message of the EFL being something for everyone.
It’s everything. That’s our differentiator. If it was all just about the best players in the world and the best managers in the world, you’d be talking about the Premier League. We have got great players and great managers, but we’ve also got people who’ve worked for their clubs for 50 years, we’ve got fans who’ve followed them since eight generations back, we’ve got 128 years of history to tell, so you’ve got to talk about the whole thing, not just one bit of it.
You can push little bits of it in the right environment at the right times, but when you sit and look at it across the whole season you’ve got to go, “I get it. The EFL is about the broad narrative and all these various entry points.”
So we’re here today and the tea ladies that are here are as important as the 80-year-old fan, and the six-year-old fan, as the manager and the player.