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Acquiring a Nation: Team England's Move from Umbro to Nike

This summer in Brazil, for the first time in 60 years, Team England will step onto the World Cup pitch without the “double diamond” branding of homespun English corporation Umbro adorning the team kit.

In 2008, Nike acquired the Cheshire-grown Umbro for $582.2 million. Initially, Nike seemed to bolster the Umbro brand identity. For the 2010 World Cup, Umbro’s Team England image boldly pronounced national pride, emotions, and loyalties.  Stitching together a narrative of nationality and sport in the context of England, Umbro commissioned a roster of street murals of Team England players’ numbers in their hometowns.

(Joe Hart, Shrewsbury -Umbro, 2010)

With the release of the 2010 Team England kit, Umbro’s advertising campaign went further, intervening in heated national debates of just who should count as English.

In the context of recurring anthem debates – debates on whether players who choose not to sing the anthem of the country they are representing are wrong, inappropriate, or unpatriotic, Umbro chose to address the topics and tensions of a diverse nation in its advertising campaign. In a video commercial, Umbro presents Team England fans in everyday spaces, standing squarely before the camera as the national anthem plays. Supporters of various ages, races, genders, classes, and other signifying social identities each wear the home Team England jersey. While some choose to sing God Save the Queen, others remain silent. Offering an inclusive idea of nationality, Umbro’s presentation of Team England seems to say, “We’re all of the same stock. We’re all English. This is our game. This is our shirt.”

During 2011, Umbro’s swan song year as a Nike asset, Umbro continued to pronounce and capitalize on its Englishness as it presented itself ready for the future and future victories: “The New Fabric of England”.

This is the backstory of branding Team England.

Though Nike divested Umbro in 2012 for a price tag of $225 million ($357.2 million less than it paid just four years prior), it is questionable whether this on-paper loss might have been ultimately profitable. At the end of the day, Nike retained sponsorship rights not only to Team England, but also to English Premier League giants Manchester United and Manchester City, among other top club and country squads.

For the upcoming Brazil World Cup, Nike has refashioned Team England. One of the more notable graphic branding narratives is Team England’s away kit. These all-white jerseys, detailed with The Three Lions badge and subtle white on white epaulette, are intended to symbolize armor like the legendary dragon-slaying St. George, while also harkening back to a 1970 World Cup face off of England and Brazil. Simple, yet steeped in nostalgia, Nike fashions this national jersey as a clean slate, not only to remember, but also to rewrite history. This away jersey sends a message to Brazil, “England has not forgotten. Get ready.”

While the jersey’s armor conceptualization may not reach or compel fans, the jersey’s typography does create a more legible, and thus consumable, visual. Nike’s typographer Neville Brody’s work on the jersey has emboldened a rather modern – not at all medieval or mythical – look.  The font to identify players’ numbers and names is more industrialized. According to Brody, “the core inspiration was to focus on the intersection between flair and workmanlike reliability.”

Like the mixed graphic and typography, Nike seems hesitant to put all their eggs in one basket. Alongside primary team and jersey advertising, Nike recruits and relies upon ancillary creative talent to further support its campaigns.

For instance, with the 2014 Team England kit, the jersey debut quickly circulated and filled social media channels of football fanzines, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. In contrast to the official Nike site’s polished campaign language describing the white on white jersey in knightly terms alongside technical performance details, one rapidly and widely circulating Nike-ancillary photography feature presented a perhaps more relatable kit. Creative team Yin&Yang’s feature includes images of everyday people – local players – wearing the kit in an empty factory setting.

(YIN&YANG: yinnyang.co.uk)

If Nike seeks to connect with the 18-25 year old male target audience of “football obsessed teens” (FOT), this clean white kit that stands in stark contrast to the raw urban settings may be rightly calibrated. The visual story is masculine, raw, and ready for the grease marks and grass stains of the game.

Neither the marketing lingo of the jersey’s technical innovations nor the imaginings of an armor-evoking graphic design comfort outraged fans who discovered the authentic, replica jersey came with a price tag of $150.

Though Nike has bought territory in the cultural landscape and marketplace of England through football sponsorship, perhaps the wounds of having lost Umbro are still fresh. Umbro is quite special for England. Though Umbro may have lost its team, the company now looks to get back in the game with sponsorship of English Premier League team, Hull City.  Meanwhile, as Nike continues to outfit Team England, there is a need to ensure that local talent, identity, and culture are not tokenized in Team England branding.

Related: Nike Mines History for France, Fashion, et le Football

Related: Adidas, Nike and Puma Brand Nations With World Cup Jerseys

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Rook Campbell is a Visiting Professor of Communication and Political Science at the University of Southern California. @cabinet48

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