Inter Milan: Brand and deliver

INTER MILAN are on the brink of being crowned Italian 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

Leaking cash – Inter Milan loss highlights Italian challenge

SERIE A is certainly more interesting this season, with the two Milan clubs, Napoli and Juventus all title contenders. Although the campaign, at 10 games in, is still in its infancy, it is clear that Juventus, champions for nine consecutive years, are not going to have things their own way in 2020-21. With the national team in the semi-finals of the UEFA Nations League (they meet Spain next year), things may be looking up in Italy.

However, the big football clubs are having a hard time owing to the pandemic. Inter Milan recently confirmed they lost € 102 million in 2019-20, following equally distressing reports that Roma (- € 204m), AC Milan (- € 195m) and Juventus (- € 90m) have all been hit hard. 

Napoli, according to media reports, have serious problems and this is making them vulnerable to clubs circling their players. Chelsea, for example, are keen to sign Dries Mertens, Hirving Lozano and Kalidou Koulibaly. There are suggestions that Napoli’s players have not been paid for some weeks. Financial problems and Napoli are no strangers, but this is not a good time to lurch into a crisis.

Inter’s loss has come at a time when the club is enjoying a renaissance. In 2019-20, they    finished runners-up in Serie A and the UEFA Europa League. This season, they have lost just once (to AC Milan) in the league but it looks as though they will be eliminated from the Champions League in the coming week. Inter have won just one of their five group games and face Shakhtar Donestsk in the San Siro in their final fixture. 

Given Inter are the best supported club in Italy in terms of average attendances (almost 59,000 in 2018-19), they have been badly impacted by a lack of matchday income. On a more optimistic note, Inter and AC Milan are proceeding with the new ground scheme and have secured the interest of two US investment banks, JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs. The project will be north of € 1.25 million but will shape a more sustainable future for both clubs.

Overall, Inter’s revenues dropped by € 45 million to € 372 million. Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation (EBITDA) came to € 14.5 million and losses amounted to € 102.4 million. The pandemic and extension of football until the end of August meant that the club suffered a deferral of revenues from TV rights and sponsorship, amounting to more than € 50 million. 

Inter agreed player salary postponements for July and August to ease the situation as football went into lockdown. The club’s CEO, Beppe Morotta, speaking about salaries in Serie A, said 60% of income was too high a percentage across the league. “It could lead to bankruptcy, so it is necessary to intervene to restore solidity to all,” he told the media.

Club president Steven Zhang outlined Inter’s ambitions: “In a situation of significant economic downturn, we have been able to consolidate Inter’s growth plans, which rest on the creation of a global brand and are based around an innovative business vision whose main target audience is younger generations.” 

According to Brand Finance, the Inter brand is ranked 14th in world football with a valuation of € 466 million. The club estimates that the number of Inter fans around the global has increased to 428 million, the ninth biggest fanbase worldwide. KPMG Football Benchmark’s valuation report for 2020 noted that Inter’s follower audience has increased by 72% across its digital channels.

As Inter admitted, their revenues were still relatively stable compared to 2018-19 when taking into consideration deferred income: “They are proof of the efficacy of the club’s global vision and strategy.”

Despite the disappointing financials, and a busy summer spending programme, Inter may still be in the market for reinforcements and coach Antonio Conte is interested in a number of players from his old club, Chelsea. At the same time, Inter are ready to sell the sought-after central defender, Milan Skriniar, with Tottenham at the head of the queue. A Champions League exit in the group stage may accelerate that move.

@GameofthePeople
Photo: PA

Football needs more from Milan

THERE WAS a time when English football glanced enviously across Europe to Italy, viewing its league as the epitome of glamour, cosmopolitanism and affluence. Italy had the world’s leading players, the most passionate and colourful supporters and the financial clout to attract top talent. Furthermore, its clubs, AC Milan, Internazionale and Juventus, among others, represented the European elite.

That was in the 1980s and 1990s, when English football was on its knees, tainted by hooliganism, declining attendances and run-down stadiums. The situation has changed dramatically, as this season’s UEFA Champions League demonstrated – four English teams in the last eight with just Juventus representing Italy.

In many ways, Italy’s Serie A provided something of a blueprint for how people wanted English football to develop. In 2019, the Premier League is acknowledged as the most dynamic, wealthy and exciting league in Europe, if not the world. Italy, meanwhile, has been in recession mode for years, although there are signs that with the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus, Serie A could be on its way back.

While CR7’s club continues to stand astride Italian football, boosted by a rebranding exercise and continual domestic success, the two clubs that represented Calcio at its most ultra-professional in the 1960s and right through to the 1980s, AC Milan and Inter, continue to struggle to regain their footing.

The Milan duo were the first Italian clubs to make their mark on international club football, winning the European Cup in three consecutive years – 1963 to 1965, with AC Milan winning first and then Inter completing a double, beating Real Madrid and Benfica in the process. The two Milans were arch-exponents of “Catenaccio”, the cautious, defence-oriented mechanism that dominated the mid-to-late 1960s and made Italian football a low-scoring, occasionally cynical game. AC Milan had the rotund, larger-than-life coach Nereo Rocco in charge while Inter were coached by the Argentinian Hellenio Herrera, a win-at-all-costs pragmatist who almost invented the modern approach to football management.

Eventually, Catenaccio got found out by “Total Football” and teams like Ajax and Bayern Munich in the 1970s. It was not until the mid-1980s that Italian clubs started to rise again, buoyed by the arrival of overseas talent. Silvio Berlusconi bought AC Milan in 1986, rescuing them from financial trouble and appointed Arrigo Sacchi as manager. Milan signed three outstanding Dutch players in Ruud Gullit, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard and this trio provided the impetus for one of the club’s most successful periods. Milan won Serie A in 1988, depriving Diego Maradona of a second successive scudetto. For the next two years, Milan won the European Cup, playing an exciting brand of football far removed from the mean-spirited catenaccio of the 1960s.

A year later, Inter, with German internationals Andreas Brehme and Lothar Matthaus in their line-up, won Serie A, later adding Juergen Klinsmann, another high-profile and coveted German, to their ranks.

Both AC Milan and Inter could, seemingly, lure any of the world’s top players to the Guiseppe Meazza stadium, commonly known as the San Siro. The iconic ground, which was sold by AC Milan to the city of Milan in the 1930s, has been the shared home of the two clubs since 1947.

While the 1980s and 1990s represented something of a golden period, Italy’s top clubs have found the modern era harder to negotiate. AC Milan have won the scudetto just twice in the 21stcentury, the last success in 2011. They’ve won two UEFA Champions Leagues, the most recent being 2007. Inter, meanwhile, had a purple patch in the period between 2005-06 and 2009-10, winning five successive league titles and the Champions League in 2010 with Jose Mourinho as coach.

Both clubs have struggled to regain their mojo after seeing their successful squads age. At the same time, they have, from a commercial perspective, stagnated, allowing Juventus to overtake them once more and become the only current Italian club who can compete on the highest European stage.

The plight of two clubs that were once the crème de la crème of European football is encapsulated by their rankings in football league tables devoted to the financial side of the game. For example,  in 2001, AC Milan were placed fourth and Inter 10thin Deloitte’s Football Money League. In 2019, the two clubs were ranked 18thand 14threspectively. The fall of these iconic clubs, on and off the field, is symbolic of the decline of Italy which has seen match attendances fall from close to 40,000 per game in the mid-1980s to barely 25,000 today.

One of the problems for clubs like AC Milan and Inter is their huge chasm of a stadium. For a start, they don’t own the San Siro, so the revenue-generating potential of the ground is limited. Juventus own their new stadium and this has proved to be a big advantage in the club’s rise to the top of Italian football over the past seven years. Italian football, generally, is played in municipal-owned stadiums that are often too big and unwieldy. The San Siro, for instance, is outdated, vast and now looks somewhat shabby compared to many modern stadiums.

However, both AC Milan and Inter could be moving or, at least, have a new home to play in. Initially, there was talk of the clubs relocating or a complete refurbishment, but Milan president Paulo Scaroni recently said the 80,000 capacity stadium would have to be demolished due to the scale of a complete renovation. The clubs have already engaged a leading US investment bank to advise on the EUR 600 million project. Key to the success of the new 60,000 arena will be the sale of naming rights.

If and when the new stadium is built, it will represent another step towards making the two Milan giants modern competitors on the European football landscape. Both clubs are no longer owned by Italians, AC Milan are now owned by a US investment firm that is affiliated to hedge funds and Inter are majority-owned by a Chinese holding company.

In 2018-19, Milan and Inter are way behind serial champions Juventus. Yet Italian football needs successful Milanese clubs to make the league more competitive and visible. Both are global names and UEFA also needs more than just Juventus to represent one of Europe’s leading and influential football nations. Although they may have both suffered from a similar malaise in recent years, the red and black and blue and black shirts of Milan still have enormous cachet in the football world – but who can restore them to former glories?

Photo: PA