Usually, being a fan of Newcastle United doesn't cross over into my profession of working in Advertising. Sure I'll have opinions on how badly the club handle the press and how they have no concept of how to generate positive PR, but on a day to day professional basis there's no overlap.
That was until I read the news that Mike Ashley is listening to offers from brands to rename the stadium. From a personal perspective it appalls me. From a brand point of view I also think it's potentially a really bad move. Let me explain...
St James' Park is the oldest football stadium in the North East. It's one of the few stadiums left in the country that has a city centre location. When you travel into Newcastle from the South (as the majority of our opponents do) you get the amazing sight of the stadium looking down over the city. It's a beautiful sight and one I still look forward to even after seeing it hundreds of times. Within the city it's a key focal point. On match day it's the centre of the universe. When you're not in the ground and Newcastle score you can hear it in the city centre. It's a true multi-sensory experience that goes beyond its boundaries.
When I've spoken to opposition fans they've been unequivocal about their love of the ground. They can get off the train, walk through the city, and get up to the ground via several drinking holes. It's not located in a trading estate situated out of town like other stadia. (Of course it's not all romantic - some fans clash and some pubs are better than others.)
So with that in mind. With all of those positives I've listed above in mind, which brand do I think should name the ground?
Well, I think who it is is much less important than how they do it.
You see, St James' Park is old. It has heritage. People know it as St James' Park. It's not like other grounds that are known as a few different names (West Ham for example is known by some as Upton Park, and some as the Boleyn Ground) and it's never had a different name in the 117 years since Newcastle United was formed.
(Some other grounds have branded names but by and large these names were given when a new stadium was built.)
The simple fact is, St James' Park is a name that people have heard, talked about, trusted (despite ownership) and had deep emotional connections to for the whole of their lives. A brand is going to have to do something very special indeed to make sure they build on this and at the same time not destroy any positive consumer feelings toward their brand.
So what would I say if I were advising a brand on this issue?
Two very simple things:
Firstly, I wouldn't change the name. It's as simple as that. Do not call it 'The [Brand] Stadium.' It'll do you more harm than good. Newcastle United fans (many of whom are global by the way) will simply resent your brand. They'll still call it St James' Park and they'll resent your brand. Opposition fans have also always called it St James' Park so the chances of them calling it anything different is slim. They've had a constant message of "St James' Park" all of their lives, so how long will you have to buy the sponsorship to change even a small percentage? A long, long time. Not a good ROI.
Secondly, I'd communicate with the fans and ask them what they want out of it. It may be a privately owned business, but it'd disappear tomorrow if the fans stopped watching. This is a key learning the brand can take from the people they'll buy the rights from: the Ashley regime. If you study how they have conducted themselves since buying the club, simply do the opposite. They are shockingly bad at communicating with the fans. You need to be much, much better. Ask them what they would be comfortable with. Test ideas with them. Speak to them as people, not as nameless animals. If you do this they'll respect your business as a brand, but they'll also build up a trust with the people behind the brand.
Own the rights to name it, let everyone know you own those rights (subtly in some cases) but respect the name and don't change it.
It will be a brave brand that does the above, but it'll be a respected brand. It'll be a brand that will be supported by the fans instead of being disowned by them. It'll be a brand that goes up in my estimations, my friends estimations and my family's estimations. I'd guess that other fans may feel the same as me too. It'll be a positive action. Not a negative action.
So, pass this on to the brands thinking about it, and comment below. Let's help them do it the right way, and let's get chatting to them.