Brand Health Check: Gola

The brand that had ruled the playground in the 70s suffered a dramatic downturn with the arrival of global rivals. Will a fashion-led strategy help it regain its cool?

As Britain's oldest sports brand, Gola is approaching its centenary celebrations next year having endured the highs and lows of the sports retail sector. Founded in 1905, when it created the first handmade leather football boots in England, Gola rose to a position of dominance in the market.

By the end of the 70s there was a barely a schoolboy or professional footballer who didn't own a pair of Gola boots. It was a decade in which the brand boasted a sponsorship contract with Manchester United and was the kit sponsor of fictional team Melchester Rovers in the hugely popular Roy of the Rovers comic.

Then came the competition. Backed by marketing budgets that Gola had little chance of matching, global sports giants Nike and Adidas noted the rising appeal of football and threw their weight behind the sport.

Reebok and Puma swiftly followed suit. Gola was sidelined and spent most of the next two decades in freefall.

The past few years have seen Gola attempt to fight back through diversification, painting itself as a broader, fashionable brand. It has used its perceived iconic status to introduce clothing ranges for men, women and children, bags, hats, watches, toiletries and bikes, with the emphasis on retro cool.

However, in a recent survey by Coutts Retail Communications, Gola was named the most uncool sportswear brand by its core audience of 16- to 18-year-olds. In response, Gola countered that as a fashion brand it should not be compared with brands such as Nike, which specialise in technical sports performance trainers.

Gola is now preparing celebrations for its 100-year anniversary next year, having hired agency Brandnation to handle the year-long campaign, but it remains to be seen how upbeat the commemoration will be. Communications activity will highlight celebrities who have worn Gola items and support the brand. They include Robbie Williams, Liam and Noel Gallagher, Jude Law and Paul Weller.

We asked Stephen Pearson, former commercial manager of the English Premier League and now managing director of sports marketing consultancy Sportacus, and Eddie May, previously UK marketing director for Umbro, before co-founding PR agency Threepipe Communications this year, for their views on how Gola can convince consumers it is still a brand worth buying.

DIAGNOSIS 1 - STEPHEN PEARSON MANAGING DIRECTOR, SPORTACUS

Gola's product range is so diverse, comprising everything from sunglasses and shower gel to bicycles, that it is difficult to establish what its core product actually is. Even a visit to Gola.com takes you to a real estate company in the US.

Gola used to be a huge brand, but how times change, as it has been bullied out of the market by the big boys.

In a sector where companies such as Nike and Adidas have advertising budgets that dwarf those of most of their competitors put together, Gola should take a leaf out of Reebok's book and seek not to compete, but to create a point of difference.

While Reebok has developed a niche market in women's sport, Gola should focus on becoming a fashion-only brand using the strengths of its sports heritage as the backdrop.

FCUK managed to turn its fortunes around merely by using a play on words.

Gola should now give careful consideration to using its short, sharp name across all advertising activity and sponsorship.

REMEDY

- Develop a vintage feel to the brand linked to its centenary.

- Aim for more of a Diesel feel than Nike, and make Generation Y kids the target.

- Focus on a concise product category and don't diversify as much.

- Create a controversial ad strategy - dare to be different.

- Target niche market segments, such as grass-roots sport.

- Create branded stores.

DIAGNOSIS 2 - EDDIE MAY CO-FOUNDER, THREEPIPE COMMUNICATIONS

Gola has a long, proud British heritage, but then so did various other brands that have long since bitten the dust.

It exists in an ultra-competitive arena and needs to fight hard to carve out an identity for itself and avoid clashing head-on with Nike, Adidas, Reebok et al in the sports/fashion market.

Gola is a sports brand and needs to re-establish those credentials before having a crack at the fashion market.

Big-name endorsements are likely to be out of reach, so it must find different ways of gaining a foothold, perhaps by sponsoring next-generation talent.

Its centenary year is the perfect time to talk about the brand, but not to be seen dwelling on its glorious past.

With a genuine sporting base to build from, Gola can think about fashion as a long-term project. It should avoid the temptation to spend money on ads just to get in the style press, because it will not work. Great design, the right collaborations (for example, Umbro by Kim Jones), careful distribution, PR and product placement might give the brand the coolness it craves and needs.

REMEDY

- Establish what Gola stands for and who the target audience is.

- Find a space that is Gola's own, so that it avoids competing head-on with the global sports brands.

- Develop innovative ways to associate the brand with sporting properties.

- Don't advertise unless it is really affordable.

- Use PR, retail, collaborations and clever sponsorship deals to get through to the consumer.

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