Manchester United’s off-pitch staff know that they play a vital role in the club’s on-pitch success
As one of the most popular football clubs in the world, with hundreds of millions of passionate fans worldwide, Manchester United Limited has a rather unique problem when it comes to recruitment for its business operations.
“For every role that we advertise – even our junior research roles and graphics designer roles – we get hundreds of applications,” says Jamie Reigle, Asia-Pacific managing director for Manchester United. “We’re very fortunate that we have this fantastic brand. The club is associated with history, with success, with a never-say-die attitude on the pitch. Everybody understands that the players are very good at what they do, so we try to take those lessons and apply them to the business side.”
Translating its famous sports brand into a rock-solid employer brand has been one of the biggest challenges that the business side of Manchester United has faced over the last decade. Since 2005, it has almost tripled its permanent staff numbers – from 300 to 800 – in its bid to capitalise commercially on the incredible success of its football team, which celebrated a record 20th English league title earlier this year. As such, it has had to pay more and more attention to how it grows, motivates and retains its workers.
“The novelty factor of having Manchester United on your business card does wear off, so it’s important we give people the right opportunities in terms of professional development, moving around the company and international exposure,” Reigle says. “We have to work really hard on retention because, whether it’s other football clubs or sporting brands, people often look to hire Manchester United people as the company is seen to be performing well.”
One of the ways that the club does this is by using the brand to engender loyalty, in much the same way as it does with the players on the pitch.
“We believe footballers come to Manchester United not just because they’re paid well, but because of the history of the club, the possibility of emulating players such as Sir Bobby Charlton, and of getting to play in front of 76,000 people,” Reigle says. “There are intangible reasons why people want to come to this club that enable us to not necessarily pay the top wage that other clubs do. On the business side, it’s the same thing – taking a few noughts off. We engender loyalty by making sure that every day when you come to work, you understand that you’re a part of the success of this football club.”
The organisation levers its success on the pitch to provide several unique staff rewards. Every time the team reaches a domestic or European cup final, the company provides its entire 800-strong workforce– including the 20 staff in its new Hong Kong office, which opened last year – with tickets and travel arrangements.
Various loyalty programmes and membership schemes also exist for staff who want to watch other matches. Meanwhile, at the end of every season, a team made up of the best staff players gets to play against a team of Manchester United coaches and ex-players – a special experience for both fans and non-fans alike.
“The cup final concept is a big one,” Reigle says. “It’s a fun event that works very well, but what it really does is link the success of the football club with the success of the business. We try to communicate to all staff that there’s a very clear link between what the chaps on the pitch are doing and the people working across the business. They understand that if they go the extra mile – if they stay late to make sure those five fans who lost their tickets can still go to the game, if they make that extra phone call before they leave for the day – it’s not simply generating profits for shareholders, it’s actually being reinvested in the core product. That manifests itself at the end of a season when they get to go to a final.”
While interaction with first-team players is closely controlled, meetings with other key team staff also provide a motivational boost. “When we had the game here in Hong Kong in July, David Moyes [the club’s manager] came to the office and met all the staff here,” Reigle says. “He gave a really good speech about how he was new at Manchester United and how he knew that they were all new too. He then went around the room and shook the hands of all 20 of my team and thanked them for their efforts. They still talk about that three months later.”
Taking a more general look at the links between sports and employer branding, New York-based Jordan Schlachter, executive vice-president for US sports at promotion agency The Marketing Arm, says that for sports clubs to attract and retain corporate talent, it is important to embrace team ethics and fundamentals.
“A ‘team behind the team’ mentality helps staff feel connected to the athletes – the on-field product – even though [the two groups] don’t have much interaction on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “The words ‘teamwork’, ‘passion’, ‘winning’, ‘community’ and ‘common goals’ are all sports-marketing terms that apply to business as well. Aligning an organisation’s mission with these practices helps the success of the ‘team behind the team’.”
He adds that corporate honesty and trust are major perception factors of sports brands, which together with careful hiring, strong community business practices and, importantly, vision, help maintain both a strong brand image.
“When aligned, a clear and stated vision, both corporate and athletic, creates a perception that fans and corporate partners alike can embrace,” he says.
A DEVILISHLY EFFECTIVE HR APPROACH
Jeremy Andrulis, managing director of HR solutions provider Aon Hewitt in Hong Kong and Taiwan, has worked closely with Manchester United since the club partnered with Aon in 2009. He explains that brands that generate a lot of interest face three key challenges in managing employee expectations.
Experience “The first challenge companies have is to make sure the employee experience matches what they see on the field or the products they buy in the store.”
Unanimity “The second is ensuring everyone in the company is speaking the same language about what differentiates this company’s employee experience versus the competition.”
Consistency “The third challenge is the hardest. You must be consistent in how you apply those messages into the business, whether it’s the rewards you offer, the opportunities you provide, or even the look and feel of an office. It’s how you translate those messages into day-to-day HR policies and practices. The organisations that do this well are able to take a hard look at themselves and say, ‘Actually, there’s an inconsistency.’”