Brand naming: What’s in name? It’s a Hullabaloo. #HCAFC

About Hull City – The Tigers

Hull City Association Football Club was founded in 1904. In August 2013, Chairman Assem Allam (1) submitted a request to the Football Association to change the club name to Hull Tigers Ltd. And all hell has broken loose. Dr. Allam says that the name change will be shorter and snappier, and more marketable. Lobbying Group ‘City ‘Til We Die’ say ‘no’; it has almost 6000 members and is growing. The FA will make a decision at the end of the season. So what’s in a name – a brand name?

There is no record of the first person to shout ‘Up the Tigers!’ but the first reference in print to ‘The Tigers’ appeared in the Hull Daily Mail in March 1905. In the season that Hull City first wore a black and amber strip. The first ‘Tiger’ badge appeared on the strip in 1947, and over the years it has taken many forms (2).

Brand naming
The first appearance of a tiger on the Hull City kit

Football clubs as brands

As a marketer, my experience is that the most successful businesses and brands are customer driven. All marketing activities should be designed to meet customer needs, improve stand-out and increase appeal. And the proposed changes are patently unappealing to a sizeable proportion of the fans. Many say they will boycott matches and refuse to renew their season passes.

As a marketer and Hull City supporter, I’m curious about the business case. If there is evidence that a name change will benefit the Club, Dr. Allam seems reluctant to share it.

Dr. Allam has lived in the City of Hull since the 1960s. He’s a successful businessman and his investment in Hull City has helped it reach the Premiership. He says the word ‘City’ is lousy and common and if he doesn’t get his way he’ll leave (3). This is a very emotional response. His words don’t sound like those of a Hull or Hull City supporter to me.

Pros and cons of repositioning brands and changing names

On the plus side, the hullabaloo surrounding the name change has given Hull a bit of publicity. Not bad for a team, only in its third year in the Premiership. And high brand awareness is an important characteristic of a strong brand.  Fortunately, there is much more to a football brand than a name. Product performance has thus far held up, thanks to Mr. Bruce and the team. The Club has built huge equity in entertaining and bringing generations together. Through highs and lows. Not just the roller coaster ride in winning and losing, but through going to matches and putting money in a bucket to pay the team’s wages. And that says a lot when folk don’t have much money. Bonds don’t get much stronger.

There are many examples of brands repositioning to attract wider audiences and improve performance. Hull City AFC, as all clubs, has evolved over generations. Inspired, almost entirely, by ownership, management and team changes. There are also examples of brands undergoing complete makeovers without changing name. Witness for example, Lucozade. There are football clubs that have changed name, and lost their fan bases (Wimbledon FC), yet were born again with a new fan base (MK Dons). And original brands that rose again (AFC Wimbledon, the Dons). Hull City is the Tigers. The words “City” and “the Tigers” are used interchangeably on the terraces. In overseas countries, the Club can be positioned in a myriad of ways to drive local demand.

On the down side, Dr. Allam has alienated lots of supporters. I’m unsure whether he has attracted any overseas. Football clubs belong to supporters, largely local communities, as well as owners. The supporters and owners are also part of the brand – not the brand itself. Dr. Allam’s investment is welcomed but his tone is not. What the fans are really rejecting is Dr. Allam’s arrogance and implied transience.

The change in the East Yorkshire county name should be remembered. In 1974, East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire were forcibly changed to Humberside. For the next 22 years those who moved away sent letters home to the old address. In 1996, Humberside was abolished and the original county names restored.

What’s odd is that no commercial evidence has been forthcoming to support a change. Though there are now a few who are putting their heads above the parapet expressing support for the change. Though their claims appear subjective, which suggests they may be PR inspired (4). Without hard-nosed evidence this compounds my belief that the case for change is flimsy.

Brands are not just about design

I wonder whether Dr. Allam has been seduced into announcing a name change by a new design idea. Taking a look at the present badge, it is easy to imagine the streamlining possibilities in dropping the AFC. This is how designers think. Presently, there may be a small Google ranking benefit, and page view increase, by funneling Hull City and the Tigers searches into a single Hull City Tigers url. But this may be undermined if it changes again.

Brand naming
Hull City AFC badge 2014

Some say the name change is a sublime masterplan to build awareness? Whatever the answer, success in the home market will require a change of tone and a credible message. It is not too late to ‘fess up’.

Marketing Inspiration

1. Branding, like marketing is widely misunderstood. Brands are not just logos or names. Marketers must never forget this point and help others understand.
2. Brands live in the hearts and minds of customers – the supporters. They are the summation of all thoughts and feelings – including memories – through tough times and good.
3. Football club brands have symbiotic relationships with communities. Clubs represent communities, communities support clubs. The brand is a shared interest and experience. The community is part of the experience i.e. part of the brand. This is why supporters have strong relationships with clubs; they wear the kit, the colours etc. Everything that the brand stands for runs though supporters like a stick of rock. It signals I’m like you, share your beliefs, hopes, and fears.
4. Changing names for community embedded brands should be undertaken with caution. There is a risk of destroying community engagement. When an owner dictates a course of action it signals, someone or something has different beliefs, personality traits. That I’m not like you and that detracts from the shared brand experience.
5. It is dangerous to make decisions on gut-feel, dangerous to invent spurious logic to support an idea, and dangerous not to be transparent. It is better to use research and evidence to make decisions. This will ensure that all risks and pitfalls are identified and mitigated.
6. The start-point is to think about the perceptions brands wish to create. To build on strengths and refine weaknesses. Perceptions are created by the product – the team and the team performance. Perceptions can be influenced by promotion and without changing names. This is why the advertising industry is a multi-billion business.
7. If you need a business partner, remember brands are more than logos.
8. If you seek free publicity, stir up a storm in a teacup.

(1) Dr. Assem Allam is a successful entrepreneur. Born in Egypt, he studied at Hull University in the 1960s and decided to stay in the City of Hull. His business Allam Marine supplies and sells generators. At number 214 in the Sunday Times Rich List, and a philanthropist, he has made donations to Hull FC, the University of Hull and Hull Truck Theatre Co. among others.
(4) The work of a public relations company

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