Watford is gearing up for arguably one of the most important matches in the club’s 138-year history – the FA Cup final against Manchester City at Wembley Stadium tomorrow (18 May).
The club has a reputation for being an underdog, only re-entering the Premier League in 2015. It has moved up and down between various leagues for years, not posing any real threat to London-based neighbours Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea.
Given Watford’s size and history, securing 11th place in the Premier League this season and securing a spot in the FA Cup final is no mean feat.
However, while success on the pitch helps bolster the club, it doesn’t change what Watford stands for.
“I know people get annoyed when you describe football clubs as brands but being in the FA Cup doesn’t change what we want to be, it just gives us a platform to shout about it a bit louder,” Watford’s head of marketing Graeme Ford tells Marketing Week.
However, if the club does win tomorrow, Ford says it will present the club with a bit of a marketing dilemma (albeit a nice dilemma to have) because it will no longer be able to play to its underdog status.
“There is one thing we’ve been batting around and it’s the fact we don’t have a history of success, we are an underdog team, and I know if we win the cup it’ll ruin that,” he jokes. “But we would want the opportunity to win the cup over being able to be this underdog. It gives us a huge platform.”
The beauty of sport is that it’s often unpredictable and for Ford accepting the fact he cannot plan his marketing messages around whether Watford win or lose is crucial.
“I can’t plan [marketing based] on what happens on the pitch, it’s too uncontrollable. I have to make sure everything we do – whether we’re winning the league or struggling at the bottom – fits with Watford,” he adds.
“If we do really well it gives us a platform we have to take advantage of. If we do really badly, things aren’t going to be as great, but as long as we’re consistent in the messaging and the output, that’s what’s important.”
A different approach to marketing
Given its underdog status, Watford knows it has to do things differently to stand out, especially when competing against Premier League heavyweights. For example, its connection to life-long supporter Elton John, who owned the club between 1976 to 1987 and from 1997 to 2002, and is an honorary life president, is something Ford says makes it stand out.
“We’ve always gone slightly against the grain and that shows in the fact we are massively punching above our weight by being where we are now. For the size of town Watford is and how close we are to London, we’ve had to do things differently and in our own way to the extent that a lot of the people working at the club know the supporters incredibly well,” Ford says.
“The hardest thing for me now is to grow this club without ruining that. But I guess it’s actually not that tough a job because the supporters get us, and we get them. We can’t just throw that away to try and chase the big,” Ford says.
The club recently launched its new campaign #ImagineIf to align with the FA Cup final.
Produced in partnership with sports agency Seven League, which also helps with the club’s digital strategy, the short video series features Watford fans talking about the ups and downs of supporting the club.
Opportunities for international growth
Ford says regardless of the result on Saturday, Watford’s FA Cup appearance will help the club extend its reach beyond its local community in Hertfordshire. But he admits tapping into an international fan base without overlooking Watford’s core supporters is not an easy task.
“That’s the challenge. Taking that community aspect and turning it into something that translates to people who are thousands and thousands and miles away from the field,” he says.
“It’s not easy and you can see why a lot of other sports teams and clubs might struggle. You also need to ensure you don’t alienate and piss off the [local fans] you spend so long working with.”
Until a year ago, Watford didn’t have a solid marketing strategy. It had a marketing and communications function but the focus was very much limited to the local area and existing fan base. Ford was brought in last March to change that and one of his tasks has been growing the club’s international base.
“The ambition is to hugely grow the club on a commercial level. We’ve been set targets of trying to increase commercial revenue through sponsorships and partnerships by four or five times over the next four seasons,” he explains.
Ford’s plan to take Watford’s community-driven mindset international requires many hands in all corners of the world, as well as a wealth of research, data and insights. But he realises the club is at the very start of this international journey and “I don’t think we’ve got it quite right yet”.
We’ve always gone slightly against the grain and that shows in the fact we are massively punching above our weight by being where we are now.
Graeme Ford, Watford FC
Ford adds that it’s quite difficult to understand the international mindset and what fans want, so Watford is looking to work closely with existing supporter groups in various countries like the US, China, India and Australia to help expand support elsewhere in the world.
“It might be they’re [international fans] that are not part of the local community in Watford. But the whole reason people follow sports is because it gives them a sense of community, which translates really well. It takes an awful lot of work to create that feeling of community,” he adds.
In order to extend its footprint globally, Ford says it’s essential Watford engages fans beyond match days, which involves providing a consistent stream of quality content year-round that will not only rival its direct competitors, such as other Premier League clubs, but compete for consumers attention on a wider level.
“We can’t think of ourselves as a 38-game event, that isn’t what we are,” Ford says.
“When people are trying to work out what they want to do with their time they’re not going to say ‘I want to watch a football video so I’ll find the club that makes the best one’ they just want to watch a good video or piece of content. You’re competing for their attention generally, not just in the football/sports sense.”