Inter Milan: Brand and deliver

INTER MILAN may end the 2020-21 Italian football season as champions for the first time since 2010, but they will certainly enter the near-term future with a new look and feel. Against a backdrop of financial worries, caused by the troubles of their owner, Suning, not to mention a mountain of debt on the club’s books, Inter’s fans can be forgiven for harbouring mixed emotions: excitement over the progress of their team but grave concerns about financial stability.

Inter have just unveiled a new, contemporary logo, defined their colour palette – a brighter, more vivid blue – and have tweaked their name. They will no longer be known as Football Club Internazionale Milan, but more conveniently, Inter Milano.

Simplicity seems to be at the heart of the exercise, which will not necessarily be well received by most traditionalists, but may be accepted more readily by new-era fans from other parts of the world. Fans never react well to change to a club’s identity, either the badge, the kit or name, sometimes with great justification, but name aside, the design  – to the uncommitted – seems a little cosmetic.

Instant

We still live in a digital world of instant gratification, despite the restrictions placed upon us by the pandemic, which have encouraged a trend towards mindfulness, slow living and simplicity. Our minds, or at least the younger generations, are geared towards immediate impact. Club logos or crests were, traditionally, built around the identity of location, hence heraldic crests were used to inform people where a club was from and the community represented. Heraldic crests are decidedly old fashioned, often too complex to understand in the modern world, and difficult to reproduce. A lot of clubs have dispensed with the lions, unicorns and crowns that adorn many crests and have extracted certain elements that are more in keeping with modern marketing needs.

The most striking emblems in history have included the cross, Micky Mouse, the swastika and the Coca-Cola logo, all of are simple in their structure. Modern symbols that everyone seems to recognise include corporate icons like Apple, Volkswagen, Amazon and Nike. Most people would be aware of the corporate brand of these companies at just a glance. The most commercially successful brands appear to be those whose logo doesn’t require description – in other words, we know that the apple with a chunk taken out of its right hand side is the iconic mark of Apple. Football is now realising that brand reputation, depiction and promise are all influence how the world sees their offering. If the club has a poorly constructed brand, it is more difficult for potential supporters, sponsors, owners and advertisers to understand and monetise the partnership they might be entering into. 

Inter have long been seen as Italy’s third club after Juventus and their stablemates AC Milan. While Juventus have dominated Italian football since 2012, the Milan duo seemed to lose their way. Both clubs have lost substantial amounts of money in recent years although the crowds still flock to the San Siro. When Inter were taken over by Chinese corporate Suning in 2016, it was supposed to signal the start of a new era for the club. 

In 2017, Juventus went through a bold rebranding, designed to make them more competitive across Europe. Although the Turin giants were standing astride Serie A, they were still unable to look Real Madrid and Barcelona in the eye. They reached two UEFA Champions League finals in 2015 and 2017 and in 2018, signed Cristiano Ronaldo, another courageous move considering his age. Juve wanted to lift the Champions League and serial winner Ronaldo was seen as the catalyst to make the breakthrough. It hasn’t quite worked for them on the field, although there have been a number of benefits for the club.

The rebrand introduced a new logo, a simple J that replaced a more traditional badge. It was the kind of repositioning that pointed to a strategy beyond football, it implied lifestyle, corporate identity, commercial iconography and high impact. Against the club’s colours of black and white, Juve’s  “J” had a high recognition level and was very visible around the city of Turin. This coincided with Juve taking their merchandising and licensing in-house. Since 2017, Juve’s commercial income has risen from € 114 million to € 189 million – perhaps assisted by the rebrand? Regardless of the corporate speak that accompanied the rebrand, Juventus’ new look was a differentiator among Italian football badges.

IM

Inter’s rationale is arguably similar – to appeal to a modern audience and be instantly identifiable as the symbol of the club. This time, it is “IM” and it dovetails with some slogan work that uses the two letters to explain what the club is all about – it might seem a little clumsy (grammar freaks will be bent out of shape), but statements like “IM Fearless” and “IM Victory” will surely be scrawled across banners at the San Siro and its hoped-for successor.

The logo, colours and name change will become effective in 2021-22, but in the meantime, there are some clouds over the San Siro. Suning, Inter’s owners, have some enormous financial challenges and have been trying to sell part of their stake in the club. For a while, it looked as though UK hedge fund BC Partners would buy a stake, but the two parties disagreed on the valuation of the club and were at odds over the size of the stake Suning were offering.

Apparently, Suning doesn’t want to sell its entire holding, but financial pressures have forced them to pivot its businesses away from sport and the Chinese government has lost some appetite for investment in western sporting entities. 

Suning recently closed down the Chinese Super League club Jiangsu, the 2020 champions, which certainly set alarm bells ringing in Milan. Furthermore, and equally debatable is Suning’s wish that any new owner/partner would assume the net debt of Inter, which totalled € 323 million in 2019-20.

While Suning has immediate issues, this is a company that generates around £ 97 billion a year. They are looking for short-term financing and have been talking to the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund, PIF, as well as Goldman Sachs and Fortress. PIF are particularly eager to invest in the city of Milan and have already tried, unsuccessfully, to buy the Teatro alla Scala.

Although people are nervous about the situation, it would seem unlikely the crisis will prove to be an existential problem. Inter have liquidity issues at present, but winning Serie A and qualifying for the Champions League for 2021-22 will help. 

As for the branding, Inter’s ambitions go beyond Europe and the minimalist aspect of the badge is clearly aimed at greater portability. Are these things important? In the modern world, absolutely, along with reputation, corporate responsibility and diversity. The majority of Inter’s fans, in normal times, do not attend their games, even though they are the best supported in Italy in terms of average attendances. For many of their supporters, their relationship is digital, therefore how a club is represented online and across digital channels is vital. For example, Inter have 170 million fans in Asia’s digital-savvy markets. The club has almost 40 million followers across the three main social media networks, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and is the most popular Italian club on China’s Weibo.

The vivid IM is an attempt to appeal to a broad, multi-generational, multi-locational audience. However it is received, and there will be sceptics, “Forza Inter” will undoubtedly prevail, especially in the coming weeks as Antonio Conte’s team close in on the scudetto.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: Flickr Pierangelo Zavatarell CC-BY-NC-2.0

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