Manchester’s Malaysian malaise?

Now that Manchester United have been knocked out of the 2013/14 European Champions League, the big question is when will we next see them back in Europe at this level? It might possibly be next season, but do they really want Europa League football?

It’s patently obvious they must invest and re-build. And the top flight of European football may come to them sooner than the gloaters would like to believe. Good on them if that proves to be the case, but maybe a season or two out of the limelight is exactly what they need.

At least this might be true from a UK perspective, but what about elsewhere in the world? In the last three years or so, I have worked a lot in Asia, particularly Malaysia. At the last count, I racked up 20 trips in 24 months, mostly to Kuala Lumpur, so I have met quite a few taxi drivers and waiters out there.

One thing that really struck me about them in particular and Malaysia generally is their utter devotion to European football at all levels and the English Premier League specifically. What’s more, Manchester United reign supreme in their affections. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that for every 100 taxi drivers (yes, OK, always male), 97 would be Manchester United fans, the rest split between Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, a distant fourth. Manchester City didn’t even get a look in. I beg to think how Assam Allem is planning on making Hull City AFC (sorry, I meant Hull Tigers) a big brand overseas – but I digress.

Back to Manchester United and Malaysian fans. Now I am not suggesting they are all a fickle bunch, but their support has developed at a time and in a way that is, shall we say, different. Not born and bred Mancunian, for example, not even, perhaps, enduring fans from childhood (even if they weren’t born within spitting distance of the Stretford End). It could make for some interesting tests of what brand loyalty really means – whether we are talking about Asia, Africa or any other continent where Manchester United has a stronghold. If actually the thing the fans buy into with brand Manchester United is success, then they’ll be off to pastures new quicker than the players seeking transfers so they can continue European football next season.

If I am right, what does this say about the extent to which Manchester United really is a brand, if support and loyalty can be so fickle and so focused on one thing only? (Maybe they’ll start supporting Manchester City and convince themselves that there’s been a fundamental change in team colours – well if Cardiff can do it…).

And if I am wrong, well I’ll stand up an applaud – they’ve done a great job in building an enduring brand that will weather the potential lull in their on-pitch fortunes. But if I were their brand manager, I would be thinking long and hard, right now, about the impact of poor form on the brand and what to do about it.