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

Inter’s benchmarking exercise shows why Juve are champions

THEY CAME, they saw, they rained on Inter’s parade – and how it frustrated the home fans in the 75,000 San Siro crowd!  It was Serie A champions against pretenders to the throne and once more, Juventus, perpetual wearers of the crown of Italian football for almost a decade, demonstrated they are still the big occasion team.

Neutral Italy, indeed neutral Europe, has been hoping this season might just be different, but as they have done in the past, Juventus floored their contender. They deserved victory, there can be no question about that.

Serie A is rapidly becoming a convalescence home for former Chelsea managers. Maurizio Sarri is at Juve, Antonio Conte at Inter and Carlo Ancelotti is down south with Napoli. Sarri was Conte’s successor at Stamford Bridge, and it should not be forgotten that it was Conte who was at the start of Juve’s current era of dominance. Now he’s returned to Italy, like Sarri, and he’s injected new life into a once ailing giant.

But the touchline winner of this game was clearly Sarri, who started with Pablo Dybala up front alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and had Federico Bernardeschi just behind the front two. Gonzalo Higuain was on the bench, looking thoroughly miserable and itching to get involved.

“Let’s talk about Chelsea after the game” – Sarri and Conte. Photo: PA

Six wins out of six and some interesting new signings ahead of the Derby d’Italia had given Inter hope they can become credible title candidates again. But in order to do that, they have to knock Juve off their perch, to quote Sir Alex Ferguson when he referred to Manchester United taking over from Liverpool at the top. Last season, Juve showed no sign of relinquishing their position, topping Serie A for 37 games and finishing 11 points clear of second-placed Napoli.

Although it is too early in the season to suggest Conte’s team can end the eight-year run of titles won by Juve, Inter’s start to the 2019-20 campaign has given everyone encouragement that Italy may actually get an engaging title race this time. That’s assuming Juve will sit back and let that happen – the way they competed and carved out chances against Inter suggests they are just as motivated as they’ve been in every Serie A season since 2012. Furthermore, anyone who doubts whether players like Ronaldo, Higuain, Chiellini (when he’s fit), Bonucci and Khedira can keep going should just remember that when Real Madrid were in their pomp in 1960, Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskás were both 33 years of age. Different times, of course, but true brilliance can be modified in footballing middle age.

Inter had not fallen behind this season before meeting their old rivals, but after just four minutes, Dybala shot through Milan Škriniar’s legs and caught goalkeeper Samir Handanovič slightly off guard to give Juve the lead. Just the start Sarri needed. It was also the first goal conceded in the opening period of a game by Inter, but it could have been even worse for them in the ninth minute had Cristiano Ronaldo not struck the crossbar after he had glided past Diego Godin and Stefan de Vrij and took advantage of a generous amount of space.

Gonzalo Higuain celebrates. Photo: PA

Inter were awarded a penalty in the 17th minute when the ball struck Matthijs de Ligt’s arm and Lautaro Martinez netted from the spot. It was difficult to dismiss the idea that Juventus had just a little too much for this Inter side, as Ronaldo showed when went close after being set-up by Blaise Matuidi and then had a goal disallowed for offside. The warnings were there for Inter.

Higuain entered the arena as a substitute for Bernardeschi. With 10 minutes to go, the fabled “Sarriball” created what proved to be the winning goal. There were more than 20 passes, including some neat interplay between Ronaldo and Rodrigo Bentancur, before Higuain finished from close range.

There was a sense of inevitability about the final result, mostly because Juve have had eight years of winning games like this and they have seen off a few challengers during that time. Juventus have won 10 of 16 games against the teams that have finished runners-up to them over the past eight seasons, and have lost just three. Success has been self-perpetuating since 2011-12, a cycle of trophies, domestic transfers to weaken their rivals and success in Europe.

Perhaps Inter are not quite ready to square-up to Juventus, maybe another transfer window or two has to pass before Turin starts to worry. We’ve said it before, but Italy needs the hegemony to come under pressure. Juve, though, rose to the task of asserting their authority as champions. It was an excellent contest, but Inter and Conte will be disappointed that they were unable to upset Sarri’s plan. As a benchmarking exercise, this game probably told Conte a lot about his team and what he needs to do to ensure Serie A’s programme lasts the distance in 2020.

Juventus are in the driving seat once more and they have rarely lost the leadership once they have it, but it is only October. The eternal question remains, can anyone really worry the big J for an entire season?

@GameofthePeople

Photos: PA