When a football club’s ultimate purpose isn’t just playing football, things can get complicated
After being cleared by UEFA to compete in the Champion’s League despite sharing an owner, Red Bull Salzburg and RB Leipzig have again unveiled identical home and away kits for both clubs. Last year, the kits were so similar Salzburg defender Andreas Ulmer wore an RB Leipzig shirt in a UEFA Champion’s League qualifier versus FK Liepaja. The mix up was blamed on supplier Nike. But indistinguishable kits are simply Red Bull’s corporate brand synergy.
If I was a fan of Salzburg or RB Leipzig, would I be bothered by this?
Red Bull has become a convenient villain for the ills of the modern game. They have franchised five clubs in five different leagues, slapping the Red Bull name, logo, colors on every space available—sometimes undermining long-standing rules. Perhaps most egregiously, the company made up the club name RasenBallsport Leipzig, transliterated to Lawn Ball Sports Leipzig, to work around German Football Association statutes that do not permit the corporate name of a sponsor to be included in the name of the club. But RB Leipzig isn’t just a company club like VFL Wolfsburg or Bayer Leverkusen, or just a legacy marketing campaign like Bayern Munich is for Adidas or Audi. It’s a creative direction.
To quote former Nike creative director and brand strategist Phil Chang:
“The mistake people often make is to use the words company and brand interchangeably. They’re not the same thing. A company is not a brand. A company has a brand. What is a brand? A brand is any entity’s point of view. That point of view is informed by one’s priorities, concerns, interests, values and so on. Brand strategy is defining that point of view. It’s asking, ‘Why do we exist and why should people care?’ Creative direction, on top of that, is figuring out, ‘What can we do or make that fulfillingly answers these questions?’”
Red Bull exists to sell energy drinks. It buys soccer clubs to make people care and their brand. And they aren’t an exception. Abu Dhabi owned City Football Group recently added a sixth club to their global portfolio in Girona, while Qatar backed PSG have laundered a quarter of a billion dollars to Barcelona for Neymar ostensibly to distract from the current Gulf crisis as several countries have cut diplomatic ties with the state over links to terrorism. The arrangement is not unfamiliar. Americans, for example, are used to franchising in other professional sports. So much so, the single-entity structure of Major League Soccer, where teams (including the New York Red Bulls) and player contracts are centrally owned by the league to control cost and share revenue, owes as much to investors mitigating risk as it does to any organic demand for a competitive professional soccer league. To wit, Adidas is the kitmaker for every club in the league and sponsors one of the league’s major youth development programs.
Branded content is the logical endpoint of sports as entertainment. Nineteen different flavors of caffeinated sugar water does not sell itself.
Thus the question they are asking of fans when they do not care enough to differentiate club kits is not whether fans are bothered; it’s whether they should be in the first place. Prior to RB Leipzig, the city of half a million people had not had a professional football club in over a decade and the local game was plagued by fan violence. Given Leipzig’s size and influence, the city was long overdue for top-level soccer. If I lived there and cared about the sport at a high level, Red Bull has made it more accessible. But it’s clear they continue to view endeavors like this as a market inefficiency to be exploited. It’s for fans to answer for themselves how their team expresses its values and which of those values matter most.
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