An interview with sports branding expert Stephen Margarito

Tamasin Handley Custom fonts
22 Jun’17

Stephen Margarito is the founder of specialist sport consultancy different. He is the former Marketing Director of TEAM Marketing, the sports marketing agency that with UEFA created the UEFA Champions League in 1992. We talked to him about the sports industry, UEFA Champions League and the role of typefaces in branding.

Have you always worked with sports brands?

I started my career in colour cosmetics, but that wasn’t my thing. Since then I have always worked with sports, in retail, sportswear, television and since 1995 working exclusively for sports events (with one exception the re-branding of the Eurovision Song Contest in 2003, but don’t hold that against me).

I have worked on five different sports: football, tennis, boxing, motorsports and Olympic sports. So many brand launches and re-brands that I have lost count. I think it’s fifteen full on-air, off-air and music brand launches.

I like starting any branding project with a blank sheet of paper. I started working for the UEFA Champions League two years after it started in 1992, so that sheet wasn’t completely blank. With the UEFA Europa League, the UEFA Super Cup, the World Boxing Super Series, the WTA Finals the ‘sheet’ was blank. And that’s a great strategic and creative challenge to have. 

There’s a big difference between creating and merely improving something. To create you really need a clear idea about what you’re doing and at some point you need a moment of genius, if you want your work to stand the test of time. Which to me is the most important thing.

What is it about working with sports brands that appeals to you?

Human emotion! The joy of triumph, the agony of defeat, the striving for success. Sport is a mirror of what we are all about as human beings, and in that mirror we see who we are and what we want to be.

The Champions League brand, in my view, is fundamentally about the wonder of looking in admiration at the very best. It’s aspirational and inspirational, it’s one of the strongest brands in the world (not the biggest but the strongest) and it’s so, so strong because it perfectly connects with the emotions that are hard-wired into our brains. Yes, tapping into human emotions is what appeals to me about sports branding.

What has made the Champions League so successful as a brand?

In my view, the no 1, 2 and 3 reason is partnership. Yes, the logo is great, the music is fantastic, the product is brilliant etc. etc. The question is why is it successful as a brand? The product is not the brand, the logo is just a piece of graphic design, the music is just a piece of music (actually it was based on a piece of music written for George II’s coronation in the 18th century). To create a brand, you need lots of people to work together with an identity, who all broadly communicate what the brand stands for – when that happens, after a long period of time, you have a brand. 

When the Champions League started only half the sponsorship inventory was sold. Nike in 92 and Reebok in 1995 (the new sportswear sponsor) weren’t interested in the licensing rights for example. Licensing, now there’s a real test of brand strength!

The Champions League wasn’t born with a silver spoon in its mouth. Now the picture is completely different, it has become a strong brand, a lot of value has been created and it doesn’t have the same problems that it had at the start. The official match ball of the UEFA Champions League is the logo applied on a ball and is one of the most successful and iconic products in sport, there’s hardly a sports shop in Europe that doesn’t sell this ball.

Based on how I define ‘brand’, the Champions League became a brand around 1999, and the key to success was clubs, sponsors, broadcasters, UEFA and the company I worked for (TEAM Marketing), all working well together. I always say that brand is fundamentally just a platform for collaboration.

How do you persuade users of the brand the benefit of a branded approach?

In my view, you have to inspire them. I am a great believer in workshops, brand books, one-to-one sessions and adding strategy detail to brand manuals created for designers. The more information you give brand users the better. Not everyone will read the material, but some will and this makes all the difference.

The culture of the business is really important as well. There’s a difference between individual sports (boxing & tennis) and team sports (football & rugby). The pre-requisite for brand success is a belief in the power of brand building and the idea of working together. Get past that hurdle – then it’s just a question of being inspiring.

Team sports are better than individual sports, in my view, as the culture of teamwork is much stronger, obviously.

How does branding in the sports industry differ from other industries?

Branding is just design, can be bought very cheaply and by anybody. Brand building is a different matter, and is very hard to do well in sport.

When I worked at Fruit of the Loom, it was really simple. We had a brand, and all the Fruit of the Loom subsidiaries had to use the brand – no discussions. Sport is akin to hearding cats – every sport will have sponsors, broadcasters, clubs or athletes and everyone has a different agenda and their own brand. To get some consistency under these circumstances is hard, and in my view that’s why there are only a few strong brands in sport. Thousands of great products and great events but only a handful of strong brands.

To answer the question directly. You have to provide users with an idea, brand icons (symbol, music, logo-font) and a great visual identity that brings everything together. And strive to get users to believe in the power of brand building.

What role do fonts play, is there benefit in having a custom font?

Fonts are crucial in sport because there is so much written communication produced in connection with any event. Signage, hospitality structures, promo trailers, broadcast studio graphics, sales presentations, the list is endless. There’s so much it’s impossible to keep track of everything.

Two brands I have worked on in the past (a tennis and a football brand) actually shared the same headline font (Gotham) – that’s not great. The key pre-requisites for success in a brand building is differentiation and consistency, a custom font furthers both objectives.

A custom font is a fantastic investment, every company has a logo and it’s just a logo, what I typically propose to my sport clients is bespoke music and a custom font, get these two elements right and a world of emotive opportunities opens up.

Are there any brands you’d particularly like to work with in the future?

If a brand has ambition and a belief in brand building, then any work is great work, that’s the beauty of working in this industry. It’s creative work, doesn’t get better than that! You don’t make huge money in this business, but you’re able to leave a legacy, something that will be seen for decades and decades, and that’s priceless. 

Read more about the Champions League custom font in this case study.

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