Mike Rowbottom: British Athletics – meet the new brand; it's a bit like the old brand

Friday, 01 February 2013
mikepoloneckWhat do we think about when we think about branding?

If we were cowboys, we would probably think about the hiss of hot metal on cattle.

But we're not cowboys, are we? We are thoughtful, concerned, inquisitive observers of the sporting scene. We are onlookers, indeed we are targets – the targets of those who alter and innovate commercial brands in order to engage or retain our attention and interest.

Sometimes the marketing men and women get it right. Sometimes they get it wrong.

The image that always comes into my mind at this point - for reasons which I cannot fathom - is that of the dumbed-down Leeds United shirt badge introduced onto the breasts of Bremner, Giles, Charlton, Lorimer et al during the mid 1970s, at the point when Don Revie had succeeded in turning the club into a byword for ruthless brilliance - or brilliant ruthlessness, depending on which view you took.

In retrospect, the dayglo yellow letters LU, nestling into each other as if they were in a womb, look like something to do with ecstasy tablets. The whole item was just one designer shift away from being a smiley face. The club introduced and marketed some flashy sock ties at the same time. I remember this because the boy at the end of my garden - a Leeds fan - made the big mistake of turning up with a pair when we all gathered on Chorleywood Common to play our habitual post-Big Match match.

leedsunitedThe Leeds United team of 1975 - all wearing smiley badges

Those particular sock ties were never seen again in public. And before too long it was the same for the new badge itself, which had replace a dignified emblem employing the script of LUFC, and was itself replaced by a more traditional emblem of a peacock, which chimed in with one of Leeds'  nicknames.

Over the intervening years the notion of re-branding football shirts has become a cliché of commercial cynicism, with followers being faced each new season with the harsh question: "Do I shell out for the new look, or do I publicly admit that I am not a true follower of the team?" Or maybe, too: "Do I admit that I am too poor to afford the new look?"

Changing badges is one thing. Changing names is another. The - thankfully - fruitless plans of the late and now disgraced tycoon Robert Maxwell during the early 1980s offer a snapshot of how sporting followers feel about their names, and about crass attempts to change them.

Maxwell, then the owner of Oxford United, was mooting the idea of buying up nearby Reading and merging the clubs into a franchise to be known as Thames Valley Royals. As I recall, he had no immediate thoughts of switching sports from football to basketball or baseball. But who knows, it might have happened had the whole thing not been laughed to scorn by everyone with a shred of regard for football's traditions.

A similar deftness of populist touch was demonstrated in 2010 when West Ham's vice-chair Karren Brady suggested that the club's  proposed move to the Stratford Stadium post-London 2012 be accompanied with a sympathetic re-branding, from West Ham United to West Ham Olympic.

The first reaction of this West Ham follower was simple: No.

And yet, and yet...at some point in 1900 the followers of Thames Ironworks had to come to terms with the brand new monicker of... West Ham United. "Call that a proper name for a team?" The generational resistance to this transition can still be heard on occasions at Upton Park as the cry goes up – an elderly cry admittedly – of "Come on you Irons!"

And the notion of a club with Olympic in its name is hardly new. Blackburn Olympic only existed from 1878 to 1889, but in that time they formed a fierce rivalry with Blackburn Rovers, and won the FA Cup.

Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose, as they used to sing on Upton Park's North Bank.

Which brings us to UK Athletics. Or should I say British Athletics? Or should I say both, as the recent re-branding to the latter name has attempted the unusual compromise of ringing in the new while not ringing out the old?

steA re-branded Stephanie Reid taking part in the long jump at last weekend's British Athletics International in Glasgow

Last weekend's indoor international match at Glasgow's Emirates Stadium marked the public debut of the new branding. Athletes and officials wore "British Athletics" tee-shirts, which were apparently much in demand from the public. Elements from the new badge, which adorns a new website, were highlighted on big screens to chime in with different disciplines taking place within the overall event. "British Athletics" branding was present on many metres of "scrim" – the designed netting which is wrapped around the perimeter of arenas and over crowd barriers.

And yet, when you ring up the organisation as I did today, the polite response on the switchboard is: "Good morning – UK Athletics..."

A little confusing, no?

Of course, the names UK Athletics and British Athletics are only the latest in shifting sequence. Before UK Athletics came into being in 1999, for instance, there was something which sounds ever so slightly reminiscent of the domestic sport's latest incarnation – the British Athletics Federation.

Little bit of basic geography now. Of course we all know the difference between the United Kingdom and Britain, but just in case it's temporarily slipped your mind, it's this: Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom but not a part of Great Britain. As the official team name of Great Britain and Northern Ireland makes clear, it is a related separate entity in terms of Britain.

And yes, in the space of the last week UK Athletics –or British Athletics – has had to field a number of calls and queries from people in the sport who are Northern Irish who have needed reassurance that this has not been some scheme designed to distance them from the main body of British athletics.

nielsNiels De Vos, Chief Executive of UK Athletics, had to work hard to smooth the path of the British Athletics re-brand - particularly in Northern Ireland

UK Athletics' Chief Executive Niels de Vos spent some time when the re-branding was being planned last year talking to the home athletics authorities, and spent a lot of that time on the phone to Athletics Northern Ireland to forestall any similar concerns.

Those concerns are well understood by the UK Athletics/British Athletics spokesperson I talked with this week, given that she was brought up just south of Belfast.

"The Olympic year of 2012 was great for us, and this re-brand is all about capitalising on that and keeping the popularity of athletics going," she said. "We don't just want to be seen as a four-year sport. We had sell-out crowds at our meetings, and it seemed as if the British public fully identified with our athletes at the Olympics and the Paralympics.

"When you heard people talking about it, they would say things like 'Super Saturday was a great night for British athletics.' That is the phrase that speaks to people. Sometimes if people ask me about my job and I say I work for UKA they say 'Who are they?' But if I say I work for 'British Athletics' the response is 'Wow! I get that...'

"The BOA (British Olympic Association) did the same thing when they set up Team GB – and there wasn't any objection voiced to that.

"We did a lot of research last year which told us that the people see UK Athletics as rules and regulations, but that British Athletics is something they feel proud of and comfortable with."

Olympic inspiration is behind new logo, which is composed of 14 pictograms representing different elements of the sport, including Paralympic disciplines. It might as well be called Marmite as, just as was the case with the London 2012 logo, people either love it or hate it.

Among those who love it, however, are the meeting promoters, who can extract elements of it to highlight events as they take place, and also, apparently, BBC production staff. "The BBC love it," said our spokesperson.

The essential reservation is this - how can you have something with two names? Awkward as it may be to remove all trace of UKA from anti-doping, rules, governance, surely if British Athletics is the name which makes most sense, everything should be British Athletics?

That said, there are two very sound arguments for the new branding. Firstly, it has filled the void where the omnipresent yellow and blue branding of Aviva used to be now that the sport's main sponsors' contract has come to an end.

Such is the faith the organisation has in the new incarnation that four kilometres of British Athletics scrim have already been produced for use at indoor, outdoor and cross-country venues from now on.

But what happens, one wonders, when the new major sponsors want to put their colours all over the arenas? Not going to happen. As De Vos strongly hinted last year, the new model will be for a Family (another Olympic echo) of sponsors all supporting various parts of the operation, but with no one dominating power. The British Athletics branding is here to stay, a consistent and flexible guideline through the sport's widely differing events.

And there is one other spin-off from this innovation. Because the branding is now all about generic events, it will mean an end to the disappointment so often incurred by posters featuring the big stars of the moment – Jonathan Edwards, Denise Lewis, Kelly Holmes, Christine Ohuruogu, Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah – who are billed to be taking part but sometimes turn out, usually for reason of injury, not to be.

This is not just an affliction suffered by UK Athletics over the seasons – it seems to be a perverse natural law affecting all such promotions. If you highlight an athlete two or three months ahead of an event, you can almost bet that circumstances will prevent them competing.

British Athletics, whatever its other strengths and weaknesses, will never suffer this particular awkwardness again...

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian.
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