Real Madrid removing Christian cross from iconic logo likely won't damage brand

(AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
(AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

Real Madrid may have crossed the sports marketing line by altering its logo, an iconic global one at that, in an effort appease a corporate partner and broaden the soccer team’s appeal.

By removing the small Christian cross that adorned the top of the franchise logo, Real Madrid acquiesced to the National Bank of Abu Dhabi, the financial institution that has become the team’s officially licensed credit card. Importantly, it will also serve as the Real Madrid membership card, a component of the deal sure to gain the attention of the team’s worldwide fan base.  With an estimated franchise value of $3.5 billion, Real Madrid agreed to the change as part of a three-year partnership with the bank that has been termed a “strategic alliance.”

How far will leagues, teams, and the corporations that sponsor them go to build the largest possible fan base? And how important is it in sports business to remain neutral on potentially hot button issues that stoke a debate about political correctness and religious pandering in an effort to increase revenue and drive franchise value? Essentially, the question becomes: At what cost might this alliance have been struck?

Real Madrid’s high-profile brand adaptation is a tricky proposition and calls to mind the saying, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” But to what extent does this apply in sports and, in particular, to a sport such as soccer that carries with it a rabid global following predicated upon a passionate fan base?

(Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)
(Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

Brand damage can occur when attempting to extend a consumer base if, in doing so, the established base becomes alienated. Rather than adding consumers, it can become a case of addition by subtraction. But does this dynamic hold true with sports fans?

Among the contributing factors to brand equity are awareness and loyalty. There’s no doubt hardcore and many casual soccer fans worldwide know Real Madrid. Yet some consumers will now be hearing about the team for the first time and wonder if it is trying to be all things to all people, and doing so merely in a not-so-veiled attempt to unlock the Muslim fan base. Others, particularly loyal fans, not only will wonder about the team selling out, but also will question what the team primarily stands for; what does its brand truly represent?

Great brands offer a unique story; they clearly and consistently communicate their mission and philosophy, and often do so using vivid imagery (such as logos) that motivates consumers. Great sports brands may be even more resilient than traditional consumer brands due to the extent of fan avidity.

To this end, there is little doubt that Real Madrid calibrated potential fan reaction. There is even less doubt they believe there will be little – if any – addition by subtraction. And this is because some fans might talk a big game, but never materially act on their dismay.

If revenue from such strategic alliances is perceived to help field a competitive team, many fans are likely less inclined to protest, literally or figuratively. They may not like the change, but they welcome the revenue. In circumstances such as these, fans demonstrate their secular nature.

So, at what cost might this alliance have been struck? It may, in fact, have come at no cost.

Accordingly, this partnership begs the question about what’s next.  Would the EPL, in a nod to Barclay’s, become the EP£? Would the New York Yankees alter their team name to Yankee$ in an effort to bolster their strategic alliance with Bank of America?  If fan response to such deals as Real Madrid’s with the National Bank of Abu Dhabi is tepid, maybe anything is possible.

After all, fans, like any consumers, wield tremendous power – they just choose not to exercise it. Or perhaps they just did.

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