Listeners to The Cynic podcast network will have heard an excellent episode this month about Celtic’s brand, featuring former Dundee United midfielder turned Creative Director John Paul Hughes.
If you didn’t catch it – I don’t know what you’re currently spending eight quid a month on, but it would be better spent on a Cynic subscription – here’s the gist: John Paul explained what a brand is (hint: it’s not about the logo) and what it can mean in 2021, especially for an organisation like Celtic that prides itself on being about something, rather than just playing football a few times a week.
It’s what other people say when you aren’t in the room is how John Paul Hughes put it. While I’ve never played for Dundee United, I’ve also worked extensively in advertising and my theory has always been that the best way to think about it is to imagine what something is without describing anything about it. What are its values? What are its characteristics? What does it mean? At the risk of sounding like a first year philosophy student, these questions do actually matter.
In a football context, it might be better put like this: How do Brazil play? What does an Ajax player look like? How do Mourinho teams play? Now I could tell you the facts that Brazil haven’t played like that since about 1982, that Edgar Davids and Nigel de Jong are both Ajax youth products and that Mourinho’s Real outscored Guardiola’s Barcelona twice, but the brand says the opposite.
Good brands are, at their heart, authentic. You can invent a brand from thin air, but it takes years to establish it and make it authentic. Once it is established, it can be almost bullet proof. It’s why we want Adidas tops and not Castore ones.
In terms of Celtic, there are three brands at play that I want to talk about. There’s the marketing brand, the footballing brand and the transfer brand. Nothing here is groundbreaking, but they are three strands of what Celtic could mean under Dominic McKay that we would do well to have top of mind when instituting a new culture, because ultimately the internal culture is reflected in the outward facing brand.
Firstly, the marketing brand is largely us: in terms of Celtic, we have the #AClubLikeNoOther, best fans in the world patter down pat. Everyone and their dog knows that, and that kind of is who we are to the majority of the world. As a Celtic fan who has lived abroad for the better part of the last decade, I can tell you that nobody talks about Lisbon, or Larsson or Republican songs or anything else: they talk about us and Celtic Park. That, by and large, is it. And that’s a good thing.
It means that we have bargaining power with the club, because we are what they sell and (as the Green Brigade have proven) we can withdraw that power.
It means that means we sit in a rarified air in European circles: people like to draw us, because they want that experience and they want to buy our shirt, because it identifies them with that idea.
If we’re being harsh on ourselves, it’s one of the few things that keeps us relevant on a continental level when the team haven’t done much to justify that relevance. Red Bull Salzburg have a much better recent European record than we do, but nobody gets excited when their highlights come on.
The footballing brand, too, is nothing new. We want a team that plays the Glasgow Celtic Way™. We shouldn’t shy away from this, because it’s as much of what we are as anything else. As fans, we won’t settle for not trying, and not attacking.
That’s not to say we should go full Brendan Rodgers and deny the reality of European football, but it means that we should celebrate and continue our tradition of playing (quote unquote) properly. This isn’t a tactics column, so I won’t dwell further on it, but you know exactly what I mean.
The transfer brand is absolutely vital for this new administration coming in. Celtic have got better and better at generating funds by selling players to the Premier League and beyond, but it is hard to establish what sort of player we sell.
What do Kieran Tierney, Virgil van Dijk, Stuart Armstrong, Victor Wanyama and Moussa Dembele have in common, other than that they all used to play for us? Not much.
We have a unique position that allows us to offer something to Premier League clubs: a tough, physical league, coupled with European football, one of the most pressurised fixtures in world football and a team that, by and large, always tries to attack.
That should, in theory, make us the ideal finishing school for the top tier English clubs, because we remove the biggest doubts that they have about foreign signings, namely their ability to win under pressure and their ability to play in their style of football when you have 60% of the ball.
If you can do it away at Kilmarnock in January with the title on the line, then the demands of the hypothetical Wednesday soiree in Stoke are nothing new.
Much as you might hate what RB Salzburg and Leipzig stand for, you can immediately picture the sort of player that comes from that system. Explosive, technical, fit. Sane, Werner, Haaland, Minamino, Keita, Kimmich. Then do it with Benfica: Bernardo Silva, Joao Felix, Ruben Dias, Ederson. Intricate, skilful, cool under pressure. Even when you get a player who isn’t like that – a Victor Lindelöf – people think they are and they get signed because the brand is so strong.
Now imagine a world where Celtic create an archetype, buy to it, then sell them on. Let’s pick three phrases and play this game. Agile, impactful, committed.
Think how much easier selling Ryan Christie would be if we had a track record of players like that we could point to and say: he’s the next one.
Nobody would care that his impact was largely punting the ball down London Road and his commitment was aimless chasing, they would see the culture and the track record and believe it. That might not be the archetype we choose to aim for, but it is the kind of thinking that we can adopt.
When you see Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, you think of Saving Private Ryan, The Post, Catch Me If You Can, The Green Mile. You don’t think The Terminal. That’s the brand.
Our existing marketing brand is strong, and our brand of football can dovetail with the signing strategy. As ever, I hope that someone close to Dom McKay is thinking about this, because these things don’t invent themselves. We have two thirds already, and we can start on the third immediately.