Borussia Dortmund’s refreshing, authentic image is part of a carefully-calculated marketing strategy — and it’s working.
Mention “Borussia Dortmund” to a football fan these days and some keywords immediately come up: homegrown, authentic, underdog, fan support, Jürgen Klopp, attacking football, “Echte Liebe.” But it wasn’t so long ago that Dortmund were synonymous with arrogance, money, and everything wrong in football.
Golden era and national popularity
Dortmund enjoyed a golden decade in the 1990s. They won back-to-back Bundesliga titles, two German Supercups, made the UEFA Cup final in 1993, and took the 1997 Champions League in a memorable match against Juventus. At the turn of the millennium, Dortmund decided to emulate the likes of Real Madrid or AC Milan. BVB went public, netted €140m on the stock market, brought in more superstar players, and sank funds into stadium expansion.
It was to be a hubristic venture. Such spending became unsustainable the moment on-pitch results suffered, and by 2004, a club with superpower ambitions found itself on the brink of financial ruin. Germany has a history of suspicion when it comes to money-making and football. So when Dortmund’s financial gambles backfired, the club’s popular image also took a turn for the worse.
Dortmund had long held a positive image in Germany. In the early noughties, some 20 million Germans rated BVB as a “likable” club — and 63% of these fans were not from the Ruhr Valley. But after the 2004 crisis, Dortmund’s golden image was tarnished. The board and the players were megalomaniacs, fans accused; the club had lost touch with its own values. Suddenly, the eminently-likable BVB were polarizing opinion.
Sticks and stones, perhaps, except the ramifications of this image were very real. Dortmund lost around 30% of their national fanbase at this time; with them went the club’s draw power for sponsors and investors. And during a financial crisis, it was a straw that BVB could ill-afford to carry on their camel’s back.
Mission: Rescue BVB
2004 saw Dortmund usher in a new management board, charged with one simple, staggering objective: rescue BVB. Image would play a major part in that mission.
A modern football club is a business, and like any business the point is to maximize revenue and minimize cost. On-pitch performance directly affects a club’s financial performance, and can be unpredictable. But football clubs also have fairly stable paths of revenue: TV money, advertising, and sponsorships. So if a club can balance that “fixed income” with player salaries and operating expenditure, it has a good chance of staying afloat even when scorelines go awry.
Dortmund’s marketing strategy in the 90′s drew heavily on the club’s strong regional identity, with slogans like “My Club, My City” and “Our Life, Our Pride.” The close relationship between club and fans is definitive. At Dortmund, the proverbial “12th man” is a functional reality, making fan support one of BVB’s most important assets.
The question then becomes how to cash in on that asset — via ticket sales, and sponsorship/brand value. The former is obvious. Concurrent with the club’s strong regional identity, Dortmund fans love local players. Give fans homegrown players to cheer on; give players that passionate support; give both parties an amazing 80,000-seater stadium to call home, and therein lies a self-reinforcing recipe for success.
As for the latter, Dortmund found a way to tap into the intensity of BVB fan support to raise their own image away from home. Two simple words: “Echte Liebe” (True Love). This was the marketing campaign designed by the Düsseldorf-based agency XEO in 2009 to strengthen BVB’s brand. Along with authenticity, loyalty, and ambition, Dortmund’s definitive trait was identified as “intensity” — hence, “Echte Liebe” and the tagline: “BVB is the intense football experience.”
Borussia Dortmund’s new image
If there is any one man who embodies the new BVB, then his name is Jürgen Klopp. The club’s decision to bring him in from Mainz was a stroke of genius. Not only was Klopp the right choice to steer Dortmund’s players, he was also the right person to front Dortmund’s public image.
Klopp is a veritable one-man PR machine, with his quick wit and open passion, sniping at Bayern, admitting his own sadness when Kagawa and Götze left the club. The coach’s reflections of fan sentiments binds club and supporters ever tighter, while simultaneously raising BVB’s profile with famous interviews.
The 2013 Champions League final stands testament to BVB’s marketing success. Not only did the football capture fans’ hearts, but the narrative did as well. Dortmund’s glowing image gave people “a side to identify with” as media outlets highlighted BVB’s youthful passion, attacking flair, and homegrown authenticity.
The strength of Dortmund’s brand has risen rapidly. Together, the “Echte Liebe” narrative and the team’s beautiful football proved irresistible to fans looking for refreshing success stories in a cash-flush age. Last season Dortmund ranked above both Bayern and Schalke for brand recognition.
“We want to continue being THE intense football experience,” said Carsten Cramer, BVB Sales and Marketing Director.
What’s love got to do with it?
However, a marketing campaign is still a marketing campaign, and will struggle to camouflage itself as organic, grassroots passion. In 2012, the addition of the slogan “Echte Liebe” to the BVB coat of arms elicited outcry from fans. The club was quick to reassure that the words would only appear in certain channels of communications.
“Our logo is our logo, and our logo remains. The logo is sacred to us and will not be changed,” said Sascha Fligge, a spokesman for Dortmund.
Issues of sanctity aside, there is also something arrogant about the claim, “Echte Liebe.” It seems almost to say, BVB is where true football passion resides, and elsewhere it may be just a little fake. Then again, that’s just the way of mottos, branding, narratives — whether self-created, or designed by specialists via pie charts and focus group testing. However warped, it all came from some core strand of truth.
Today, Borussia Dortmund are “the Black-and-Yellow miracle,” the heartbeat of German football. They have come a long way from the megalomania of the early 2000′s, thanks in no small part to a beautifully-executed marketing campaign.