Just for once, England didn’t expect. Still haunted by the echo of the Icelandic "Viking thunder-clap" after defeat at the European Championships in 2016, and embarrassed by the newspaper sting that ended Sam Allardyce’s one-game tenure as manager a few months later, the England football team had fallen to its lowest ebb in the post-war era.
When an estimated 35 million people tuned in on 11 July to watch Harry Kane and co fall agonisingly short of the World Cup final, it was the biggest TV audience in decades. This represented the conclusion of a whirlwind romance that reconnected the general public to the Three Lions and reshaped the nation’s relationship with football for a generation.
To understand the sheer scale of this brand transformation, one must revisit the dog days of 2017. That was when paper aeroplanes rained down on the Wembley pitch in sarcastic applause at the side’s uninspiring qualification for the World Cup in Russia. It was also the year the Football Association apologised to women’s team stars Eniola Aluko and Drew Spence over racist jokes made by their former manager.
Advertisers were becoming wary of associating with the FA. Lead sponsor Vauxhall had called time on its seven-year partnership, albeit in the wake of its acquisition by French carmaker PSA Group. More damning was the decision by Carlsberg to end its 22-year stint as the official beer of the England team, with Liam Newton, the brewer’s vice-president of brands, remarking that it had chosen to look elsewhere in search of "fantastic brand experiences".
Led by chief executive Martin Glenn, technical director Dan Ashworth and new manager Gareth Southgate – at that point better known for his post-Euro 96 Pizza Hut ads than his tactical prowess or waistcoats – a chastened FA senior team devised a marketing strategy to re-engage a weary public.
"Our campaigns with England used to be about celebration, almost perpetuating the image of a team going out there to win, and that nothing else mattered," Mark Bullingham, the FA’s commercial and marketing director, says. "[This] helped to raise expectation levels and probably wasn’t helpful from a public perception point of view. We wanted to make it more realistic, more down-to-earth."
All England team marketing was to be guided by the more humble strapline: "Work to do." The World Cup squad announcement was a case in point: gone was the bombast of previous tournaments and in its place was a video showing teenagers across the UK revealing which of their hometown heroes were on the plane to Russia. And this reluctance to predict glory led the FA to eschew the traditional official World Cup song, despite receiving 300 unsolicited approaches.
Lessons were learned from other sports, too, notably in winning over an antagonistic press. Before the World Cup, the media was allowed access to all 23 members of the England squad in an open, speed-dating-style forum used by NFL franchises. "We were trying to counter the misconception that the players don’t really care. Nothing could be further from the truth, and we needed to show that," Bullingham says.
The FA also boosted its digital investments, promoting the team through its Lions’ Den daily livestream on YouTube and encouraging players to open up to fans on social media. The strategy worked, with the FA’s content racking up 87 million views across platforms over the course of the competition.
Sponsors were briefed on the new approach. Instead of glamorised shots of England players scoring goals, activation campaigns, such as Lidl’s ads showing England stars messing about with primary school kids, focused on bridging the gap with football’s grassroots. This went hand-in-hand with a decline in the big-budget "hero" spots that had defined many past international football tournaments, and a redistribution of marketing resources towards cheaper, more targeted digital content.
With Bullingham in talks with three prospective partners over the lead England team sponsorship, alongside negotiations with several other partners, Richard Barker, managing director at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, believes the FA has found itself in a position it could only have dreamed of at the turn of the year. "The value of its asset has just gone through the roof. If it renegotiates [any deals], I think the price tag has just gone up quite significantly," he says.
According to Barker, a combination of a progressive manager and a diverse, talented team in tune with digital culture means there is "less risk" associated with an England sponsorship than in previous years. Hitherto unheard-of players, such as Jordan Pickford and Harry Maguire, offer a unique opportunity for brands, he says. Even an "old organisation" like the FA has become has "a lot younger and more dynamic", Barker adds.
"It’s been a great World Cup for the brand of the England football player. They are young, they seem much more relevant to youth culture and more approachable. If you compare that with a young Wayne Rooney, well, it’s worlds apart. They already feel more naturally marketable for brands," he says.
Furthermore, the success of an England sponsorship is no longer dictated by the performance of 11 players: the Lionesses, England’s women’s team, will go into next year’s World Cup as one of the favourites after an unprecedented period of improvement. At the under-17 and under-20 levels, England also boasts two World Cup-winning teams.
Brands can also capitalise on the FA’s improving infrastructure for the grassroots game, including its Wildcats football centres for girls between the ages of five and 11, and its new Matchday mobile app, aimed at helping amateur clubs manage players and fixtures.
At a time when the nation’s politics are bitterly divided, and expectations were lower than ever, the England team surprised us all with a captivating run to the semi-finals. They even won a penalty shootout.
The FA will be hoping that the ego-free openness of Russia 2018 sustains the team through to the 2020 European Championships, in which seven key ties, including both semi-finals and the final, will be played at Wembley. Then it is on to Qatar 2022, a winter World Cup to be played in the run-up to Christmas, and after that a North American jamboree in 2026.
Perhaps Nike, the England team kit maker, sums it up best with its "Believe as one" ad (pictured above), released in the days after France lifted the World Cup trophy. Showing scenes of ordinary English men and women of all ages and ethnicities playing football, a voiceover states: "We’ve been here before. But this... this feels different. This doesn’t feel like the end. It feels like the beginning."
It’s a whole new ball game and brands must be wise to the arrival of this new England.