It was futile of me to think I could avoid writing anything about someone who has given me plenty of entertainment over the past few years, so here goes. The list of Garry Cook gaffes has been recalled with glee by the press following his demise as Manchester City chief executive last week. There was no shortage of schadenfreude, but that’s hardly surprising; for many, Cook’s naked ambition was seen as arrogance, or ignorance, or perhaps both. When Cook unveiled his less than modest plans for world domination we all had a good laugh. There was plenty of talk in the press about plans to promote the City brand, which lead to suggestions they planned to become the Virgin (as in Richard Branson’s company) of Asia. Since then City have established themselves as genuine title contenders, and the laughing has been increasingly muted. Cook should have been vindicated, but he’s out of his job after his cherished brand became too closely associated with him.
I don’t understand what compels executives to start talking about their club using abstract terms like ‘brand’. My lay person’s understanding of a brand is that it is a highly subjective concept; it’s the way you perceive the values and image of a product or organisation. Most of us are probably passive in our views towards many brands, but there will be some that you actively like or dislike. For example, I dislike the Innocent brand because of its horribly contrived attempts to pass off bottles of mass-produced fruit as something cute and loveable, ‘look at the little woolly hats on our smoothies, aren’t they cute!” No, and neither is the majority shareholder of the Innocent brand – the cutesy little beverage company called Coke-Cola. Or, perhaps I’m a just a miserable bastard. Like I said, subjective.
Garry Cook managed the Jordan brand for Nike. Now, as sporting brands go, Jordan is a pretty big fish. So, you’d assume Cook would bring a fair bit of commercial nous to his role at City. In some respects he did, as their recent signings demonstrate.
The thing is, I’m talking about brands of products that exist in a market place where we can exercise choice. We all make choices every day, and brands have a big part to play in helping us make those decisions. To that extent, I can recognise the importance of a brand, but in football, most of us make one choice, and that’s it. You’re signed up to a lifetime subscription. So when a new suit turns up and starts talking about building a brand, you might be inclined to think, ‘hang on, we’re already here’.
As for Cook’s commerical expertise, it seems the one thing he didn’t seem to factor into this grand strategy was his own personality. Or, maybe he did, and that was the problem. Ultimately, Cook was brought down by something he is alleged to have written in an email that wasn’t meant for the public to see, but that’s hardly an excuse given his prominent role. For someone so steeped in the world of branding, there is a tremendous irony that City’s brand had become so closely associated with his errors. This is simply not how it should be.
A football club is many things: it is the fans, the players and manager, the stadium, the history, and the owners. Somewhere, probably a lot further down that list, you might recognise the role of the chief executive. Why then did Cook feel so obliged to pursue a policy of promoting his own profile so relentlessly? If he was so concerned that City weren’t being taken seriously he should have recognised the signings of Sergio Aguero and David Silva did far more to silence the doubters than any of his outbursts ever could.
This is another reason why I take issue with the branding men in football. Boardroom egos like Cook who peddle their branding snake oil can come and go. They might impress the other executives with their jargon, but they are only as good as the product they have to work with. It’s really not that complicated: success will bring more profile, and make it easier to attract better players, so the brand is more powerful. Resources, good players and a decent manager – there’s your formula. The rest is superfluous.
Arsenal are a very different example to City, but relevant to this point. Speaking after his appointment as the Gunners’ Commercial Director, Tom Fox singled out Arsene Wenger as the club’s best weapon in the battle of the brands, “to hear him articulate his vision for the game and listen to him describe what it is he is trying to, there is no better brand spokesman.”
Arsenal have indeed tried to trade on their perceived ethos as a club that nurtures talent. In the window of the Arsenal Superstore at Finsbury Park you will see a t-shirt that proudly states “we don’t buy superstars, we make them”. That’s all good and well when the team is winning, but after a few years of declining competitiveness, and much of that carefully nurtured talent heading for the exit, Wenger is increasingly seen as a potential weakness. Arsenal are seen as falling behind and increasingly out of touch with the demands of the Premier League.
If the team suck then all of the most sophisticated marketing strategies in the world are going to be pretty meaningless. Consider the land where Cook learned his trade; it is no surprise that the biggest brand in baseball, if not the whole of US sports, is also the most successful. The New York Yankees boast 27 World Series title wins, followed by the St Louis Cardinals (10) and Boston Red Sox (7).
Twenty seven titles – almost three entire decades of success. That’s how long it takes to build a brand as formidable as the Yankees, and that’s what football clubs in England need to aspire to if they really want to own the world stage. Arsenal might have felt they had a strong brand, but it looks increasingly brittle in the face of their rivals’ successes. As for City, the removal of the calamitous Cook will mean the focus of the football world is on their increasingly impressive football, which is precisely how it should have been all along.