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William D. Markle, Professor for Economics and International Business Negotiations at the Zhejiang University of Science and Technology, Hangzhou, China

Ÿ How would you define a brand in your own words? What is a global brand to you?

A brand is a product, an idea, or an institution that is well-defined within its market and also carries substantial unspoken or unarticulated values along with it. I think, I want to define a brand as distinct from its physical image, mark, or representation. A brand name can get a new image, but it can also be closely related, as in the case of the Michael Jordan brand.

Ÿ Do you think an athlete or a professional sports team can be a brand? If so, why do you think that is?

I think Michael Jordan became a brand. The black outline of his head became a worldwide symbol of something that is not easy to explain, not necessarily the NBA, or the Chicago Bulls, but whatever Michael Jordan would choose to represent. The question of why that is can be explained like this: People desire meaning, and role models in which they can believe. They do not get that from the church, the government, the unions, or their company any more. So a sports team, or a sports figure, can become a brand – not just a well-known seller of something else, but a brand in itself – if it has desirable characteristics that are sufficiently well defined through marketing and advertising (but not too much).

Ÿ Who is coming to your mind when thinking about athletes/pro teams as global brands?

Once again, Michael Jordan. Furthermore, two of the English football teams, Manchester United and Arsenal London. I am not sure why – it may simply be because they are old teams and the fans are boorish. But as an American, they represent English football, for me. That would certainly be different for people elsewhere. In the US, the New York Yankees baseball team has been a brand for a long time. There is a so-called Yankee mystique.

Ÿ Why do you think people like sports almost all over the world?

Sports is some kind of entertainment to the people and it provides meaning at the same time. Sports provide a sense of belonging, of being part of something larger than oneself, and not incidentally, something that can be seen (less often now) as more pure, divorced from everyday problems, than any other element in the culture. So sports provides a chance to leave the everyday life behind, at least for quite a while, but also to learn something for life in general.

Ÿ What distinguishes sports from other societal fields, like music, art, politics etc.?

Sports are available to most people in a society in a way that music or art are not. Sports provide meaning without obligation; in politics, you may have to justify your position when talking with someone else, but no one has to justify why they are a fan of the local team. Sports is easy and complex at the same time. People know statistics about teams and players, and can discuss certain strategies, in far more complex ways than they can discuss politics or economics. Within these discussions they become involved or maybe even a part of the system. And in the end, after all, pro sports is some kind of entertainment.

Ÿ Do you think a brand in general can be globally positioned without local and cultural adjustments? What would those adjustments be?

It depends on where in the branding field the company or organization is starting from. Rugby, as a sport in the US, would need some adjustments from its American image in the 1960s and 1970s to become more acceptable to advertisers in the US. China attempted to use the 2008 Olympics as a way to brand the “new China.” In my opinion, that worked up to a certain point. The fundamentals of social control in China still dampened the message. In other words, the product still has to be good; the cultural references that surround the brand are important; and a brand image can easily be lost if the product loses quality or the other cultural aspects with which it is associated lose their value.

Ÿ How would you define culture?

To me culture implies aspects of a society that are generally agreed to set one group apart from another (as distinct from those aspects thought to be characteristics of excellence).

Ÿ To your mind are there different aspects or values of culture, and if so which are the ones that are sticking out?

Language, of course – dialects and manner of speech; dresses; stories that those within the culture tell each other about themselves; food; art, music, or other cultural references including shared ideas or values. National sports become a sort of brand for a nation outside that nation – Rugby in Australia and New Zealand and South Africa; basketball in the US (in a way that baseball and American football have not); ping pong in China.

Ÿ What cultural aspects or values do you think are the most important ones regarding the field of sports?

For an international brand, I think a team or an individual must work to set itself apart from some surroundings – fans or nationality or perhaps culture. It is not always a good idea to identify a team or an individual with a nation; that may be harmful. In that sense, it may be that a brand needs to define itself apart from its surroundings, and therefore, a brand cannot be too well defined, or it risks collateral damage. What exactly is it that the Michael Jordan head outline represents? Honestly, I have no idea. But there are no words, no other identifying marks associated with that image.

Ÿ What are the major differences in the North American and the Asian (Chinese) culture?

Now at the end, something I know about. So here are a few main ideas. China is old, and carries thousands of years of historical baggage; the US (and Canada) are young and the baggage is often thought by many to be irrelevant (whether that is true or not is a good question). Chinese culture is changing rapidly, I think, but it is emerging from a family based, village based, sort of clan based system to a more secular, I would say, national and international system. A lot of people would say that Americans have no culture – and that could be correct, if culture means a set of beliefs that most people will agree with, other than individualism. Chinese culture is highly focused around the notion of guanxi, but guanxi is personal and not institutional. I have said that guanxi extends to the very, very extended family, and those with whom one chooses to cultivate a relationship, but outside that, Chinese culture is almost Hobbesian. Americans are far more able to “trust at a distance.” Chinese wait for the government to tell them what to do, Americans volunteer. I am, of course, running far away from academic definitions here. And as I tell students, China and the US are big places, anything one says about either country is simultaneously true and false. Chinese culture is collectivist, with Confucian characteristics. Roles are important, more than law or regulation or new for the sake of new. American culture is highly individualistic – the goal of all marketing, all selling, all public policy is to make things easier or better for the individual. That does not exist in China. The goal is always to maintain or improve the system. The individual is not valued in China. Younger Chinese are caught in a transition; it is not clear what will emerge as culture becomes defined by the one-child household.

 
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