Mark Ritson on Branding: Renaming Newcastle United's St James' Park stadium destroys brand equity

Mark Ritson
Mark Ritson

The renaming of Newcastle United's stadium could do untold harm to the club's brand and heritage

It has been a painful few days for the Ritson family. I went to see my dad to deliver the bad news that I was about to change my name by deed poll. After months of negotiation with Haymarket, the publishers of this fine magazine, I had finally agreed a deal to change my surname to @marketingmagazine.co.uk.

Dad took it badly. I tried to explain to him that the financial implications of the deal were too good to resist, but he was inconsolable. He had hoped I would carry the Ritson name into future generations. That made it even harder to explain the deal's additional clause stipulating that any of my future off-spring would be christened 'Up-to-the-Minute Coverage' and 'Extensive Insights'.

Once again, my dad, rather short-sightedly, accused me of selling out, and once again I had to explain to him that his future grandchildren Up-to and Ex would benefit from the financial security of the deal.

Ridiculous? Not if you're a Newcastle United fan. St James' Park, the club's home for more than a century, has been renamed the 'sportsdirect.com@St James' Park Stadium' until the end of this season, when an auction will be held in the hope of raising £5m a year from the successor to the title rights.

According to the club's managing director, Derek Llambias, it all makes sense: 'We understand St James' Park, and the history is wonderful. We are not trying to take that away, we are trying to add something to the revenue.'

The fans are in uproar, but there is one marketing expert who thinks the renaming is smart. Fiona McLachlan, PR agency Weber Shandwick's head of media and co-head of sport, said: 'The Premiership has moved toward naming-right partnerships for new stadiums; the naming of existing stadiums is simply the next step. It offers brands the opportunity to enhance their profile and raise awareness of their products. It also aligns their brand with elite sport and, most importantly, utilising the club's brand and heritage.'

Fiona, there is a difference between naming a new stadium after a sponsor, and destroying the heritage and brand equity of an existing venue. As a marketer, you should know that. The name 'sportsdirect.com@St James' Park Stadium' is not 'utilising the club's brand and heritage', it is destroying it.

Long before Newcastle United's owner Mike Ashley was born, or Sports Direct had been founded, working-class people were saving their hard-earned cash for a trip to St. James' Park. It is among the most famous stadiums in the North of England, and part of the cultural fabric of Newcastle. The crass commercialism of the stadium's new name is not an example of modern branding, it is an embarrassing illustration of how to destroy brand equity.

If marketers think it will help Sports Direct sell more gear over Christmas, they need a reality check. McLachlan is right that the move will 'raise awareness', but I believe she is wrong to claim it will 'enhance the profile' of the sponsoring brand. Instead, it seems to me it will link Sports Direct with the kind of big money, anti-sport associations that will damage the brand in Newcastle and, thanks to media coverage of the scandal, across the UK.

If Newcastle United really needs revenues, it should stop paying players £50,000 a week to sit on the bench and complain about the weather.

Moreover, if marketers really want to be brand experts, they should recognise that not all brands come with balance sheets and strategic objectives. Some are more ancient, silent examples of brand equity, and marketers should do everything in their power to protect them.

Mark Ritson, PPA columnist of the year (business media), is an associate professor of marketing and consultant to some of the world's biggest brands

30 seconds on renaming stadiums

  • Three Barclays Premier League football clubs have stadium naming-rights partners: Arsenal (Emirates), Bolton Wanderers (Reebok) and Wigan (JJB). Everton and Chelsea are also reportedly exploring the possibility of renaming their existing grounds.
  • One team unlikely to follow suit is Aston Villa. The club's manager, Martin O'Neill, is 'very much against it'. He explains: 'If the sponsorship runs out in a few years, even though it has a short history, it would be strange to see it with another name. I cannot see Villa Park being called something else.'
  • The San Francisco 49ers American football team has renamed its stadium four times in 15 years. Its original name, Candlestick Park, was changed to 3Com Park in 1995, then to Monster Park (after the cable company), and finally back to Candlestick Park after a local government decree forbade any further changes.
  • Other US grounds sporting bizarre sponsored names include the Colorado Rapids soccer team, which competes at Dick's Sporting Goods Park. Rival FC Dallas plays at Pizza Hut Park, and baseball team the Chicago White Sox plays at US Cellular Field.
  • As yet, there have been no announcements about renaming Wankdorf Stadium in Switzerland - home to the Swiss football team BSC Young Boys.

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