Peter Kenyon: The colour of money is blue

Big-spending Chelsea is expecting nothing less than global brand domination from Peter Kenyon, Man U's former marketing king - starting with getting all of London to support the Stamford Bridge side. Ian Burrell meets him
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The Independent Online

That was the old Chelsea. Behind the most media-savvy chief executive in English football is the Chelsea Megastore, dominated by the new club badge that he has introduced. Young fans, a blue gleam in their eye, walk past the suited Kenyon, showing no sign of recognition of the chief executive, in spite of the photographer's presence. Kenyon will hardly care. Latest figures from sports retailers show that the new Chelsea centenary season shirt, carrying the new badge, is outselling Manchester United's by four to one.

It was Kenyon who, as chief executive of the Old Trafford club, established Manchester United as what he himself described as "the single largest sports franchise in the world across all sports". Now he wants to replace it with Chelsea.

It is a big task but Kenyon, who will be the keynote speaker at next month's annual conference of the Marketing Society in London, knows all about global branding. Two English clubs - Manchester United and Liverpool - have traditionally had international fanbases, he says. Chelsea will emulate them, only much more quickly and scientifically.

"With all the media outlets today it doesn't take you as long as it did 15 years ago to build awareness and brand," he says. "What will make us different is that we will have structures and partnerships in place and a real connect programme in the territories we have outlined, as opposed to the team just going on tour every two years and then disappearing. That doesn't do anything to build a sustainable income stream. You've got to be doing things every day and every week." Kenyon's vocabulary, you notice, is not of the ee-aye-addio variety. He talks of the national sport, the beautiful game, as "the industry" and uses such terms as "delivering eyeballs" and "building communications platforms".

Chelsea's international expansion is carefully targeted, he says. "It's not a scattergun approach; it's very focused. It is North America and within North America it is LA, Chicago and New York. It's China. It's Russia because we've got a strategic advantage in Russia, given our ownership structure. That's probably more focused than other football clubs."

Kenyon already presides over a considerable media empire. It includes the Chelsea TV television channel and Big Blue radio station, both broadcast on the Sky digital platform. The television channel and the official website chelseafc.com are run by a Chelsea subsidiary called Chelsea Digital Media (in which BSkyB has a 20 per cent stake). Then there is Chelsea, the monthly magazine produced by publishers Profile Sports Media and distributed to more than 70,000 fans, and the Chelsea FC matchday programme. Kenyon has established a communications department, headed by Simon Greenberg, former sports editor of the London Evening Standard, who this month recruited former Standard news editor Emma Wilkinson as "head of editorial" and Simon Taylor, a former political researcher for Margaret Beckett, as "head of media", based at the club's new training ground media centre in Cobham, Surrey.

But it is in marketing that Kenyon specialises. Since being headhunted from Old Trafford by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich two years ago, he has clinched a five-year kit sponsorship deal with Samsung worth £11m a year and an eight-year tie-up with Adidas valued at £12m a year. Ultra-conscious of branding, he has also changed the club badge, hiring brand design company Blue Dog to undertake a review of past Chelsea badges to ensure there was "emotional attachment" to the new logo. Kenyon, who was criticised by United supporters for taking the words "football club" off the Red Devils' badge, has made sure the same words (and a pair of small footballs) are reintroduced to the Chelsea logo (previously a lion and the letters CFC).

"The biggest part of my postbag when I arrived was the badge, which was the manifestation of how people see Chelsea. There was a great groundswell that the previous badge [showed] no identity towards football," he says.

He also had to consider how such a badge would look not only on screens and on merchandise but also in black and white in terms of newspapers in China. As Kenyon outlines his plans for Chelsea, China is a recurring theme. But for the moment, as he thinks of expansion in the east, Kenyon is focusing his gaze closer to home. Chelsea's core support has traditionally been drawn from the west and south-west of London but Kenyon sees no reason why Abramovich's club should not dominate the whole of the capital.

He says: "The importance of London is critical in our strategy. London today is one of the top three cities in the world. The first objective is to own London. When we talk about internationalising the brand the first thing we want to do is get critical mass within our own territory." An element of this strategy was Chelsea's very public support for the London bid for the 2012 Olympics, which will be based predominantly in eastern areas of the city, the traditional turf of West Ham United, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal.

"Chelsea was the first football club to come out and support the Olympics, followed by the Premier League and all the other football clubs, which was right. Doing those things in an innovative and first-mover manner is what will ultimately associate us with a broader constituency than just Chelsea," says Kenyon. "Our whole community programme and CRM (customer relationship management) programme is about broadening the base of activities away from just Chelsea and Fulham." The full impact of Chelsea's London-wide community programmes will kick in next summer with the launch of a major project in conjunction with Adidas aimed at football-crazy kids and intended to inspire future loyalties to Stamford Bridge in all areas of the capital.

It is not a strategy that is likely to help Chelsea's relations with Arsenal (already strained after Kenyon and manager Jose Mourinho were caught talking to Gunners defender Ashley Cole), especially when the Highbury club is looking to fill its expensive new ground at Ashburton Grove. That is not Kenyon's concern.

"I don't think there are any boundaries in terms of attracting supporters," he says. "The penetration of shirts is a good indicator and we are selling shirts far and wide nationally. Chelsea's first target may be London but we do [look to] the UK for national support. There are more and more kids starting to support Chelsea and they don't know the boundaries of Fulham or Kensington. What they are buying into is a successful football team and one with stars and with charisma through its manager and the way it plays."

One London club is named for an armaments factory, others for unfashionable suburbs. Chelsea, Kenyon believes, "represents being identifiable with London. It is identifiable with entertainment and the King's Road".

"Recognition in China of a football club is around the naming and recognition of a town," he says. "That's where we think Chelsea has another advantage, in that Chelsea is synonymous with London. That's one of our differentiations from other clubs. There's this automatic recognition that Chelsea is London and London we want to become Chelsea." As a marketer, he has commissioned research into the global support for the club, just as he did at United which reported an international fanbase of 50 million. The findings, he claims, show Chelsea have five million followers in the UK and 20 million worldwide.

"Independent research is a fundamental part of understanding what our brand is," he says. "We have grown our fanbase over 300 per cent in the past two years," he says. "It demonstrates that once we start to get success on the field it very quickly follows in terms of business opportunities and brand awareness." Fans of other clubs might scoff at these huge figures. Kenyon knows such numbers serve a purpose, showing that "we can deliver eyeballs, [which] is important to sponsorship".

He admits that an overseas supporter will not always have the same attachment to the Bridge as someone raised on the World's End estate. But he adds: "What's important is that we get a relationship with one or two million of those 20 million in order to make it meaningful, so they become more like our supporters here. That takes time but I'm confident that's what will happen. We will work very closely with our two primary sponsors, Samsung and Adidas, who are key conduits into those markets and that conversion to customer approach."

Ah yes, the conversion to customer approach. Unfortunately, a lot of diehard Chelsea fans - now paying £50 for a match ticket - don't much appreciate being seen as "customers". One season-ticket holder, writing in The Observer, attacked Kenyon (a Mancunian and a United supporter) as a "sharp-suited mercenary" and "a beast".

But the marketing whizz says the terminology is a sign of progress. "I would seriously argue that because we talk to them as fans we forget they are customers and haven't given them the level of service and quality of products they deserve," he says. "By thinking of them a bit more as customers we can give them better value for money and a better experience wherever they enter the Chelsea world."

Peter Kenyon, who will be 52 on Wednesday, grew up Stalybridge, north Manchester, the son of an electrical engineer. He trained as an accountant and worked for the cigarette maker Gallaher before moving to Burton and then the sports firm Umbro, where he made his name. Kenyon's masterstroke came in 1987 when he proposed turning the multi-sports business into a football-focused operation in spite of the game's lack of goodwill in an era dogged by hooliganism. (He attended the European Championships in 1988 and remembers "a war zone".)

A change in Umbro's ownership led to him relocating to South Carolina where he honed his marketing skills. "The Americans are the best marketers in the world," he says, laughing. "Trends start West Coast, East Coast then Europe. If we are talking about consumer brands they tend to come from North America or Japan." (Chelsea will soon after Christmas unveil new joint ventures in America, undertaken with Kenyon's US contacts in sports and marketing and aimed at further promoting the club's name stateside).

When he returned to the UK, sports marketing was "pretty raw", he says. He was hired by United as deputy chief executive in 1997 and, three years later became chief executive, clinching major sponsorship deals with Nike and Vodafone.

The job also saw him embrace with relish the chance to broker multimillion-pound transfer deals with star players such as Juan Sebastian Veron and Rio Ferdinand. Critics say he often paid over the odds for players and the United board reportedly baulked at the wage deal Kenyon offered Dutch winger Arjen Robben (who has since joined up with Kenyon and Mourinho at Chelsea).

He controversially sold David Beckham to Real Madrid, despite knowing the player's commercial value as a global brand in his own right. Asked about the wisdom of the sale, he says Beckham was let go "because we were true to the football end of the business ... at that time we could maximise our return on David". Kenyon says Real's business model is very different from United's and Chelsea's. "We will always look at the football team as a sports team that we can market as opposed to a group of marketers that we can build into a team," he says.

One critic of Kenyon's record at Manchester United noted the club's phenomenal successes in 1998, a year after he joined, and said he "just happened to be in charge when United won the treble". Part of the attraction of moving to Stamford Bridge was that Chelsea offered Kenyon more of a blank canvas.

He draws a very important distinction between his branding strategies at Old Trafford and at Chelsea. "Manchester United had been built over a long period of time from the Fifties and the Busby Babes, the European Cup success (1968), the domination in the Sixties and Nineties. If we look at Chelsea we haven't had that rich heritage of on-field success so we have had to think about it differently."

It is a Chelsea branding strategy that will be focused firmly on the achievements of the Abramovich era, rather than dwelling nostalgically on terrace favourite Micky Droy or indeed Micky Greenaway (who died shortly before the current "Chelski" revolution began).

Soon after Kenyon was hired by Abramovich he drew up a Chelsea Vision, which he describes as "aggressive but simple". It demands that within 10 years "Chelsea becomes the most successful football club on and off the field".

Chelsea are on course for a second successive Premier League title and revenues are up to £160m a year. "I think we are in good shape," the chief executive observes, although a day later Chelsea are dumped out of the Carling Cup by Charlton.

Kenyon is looking for other sponsors to add to a list that already includes Budweiser and BSkyB. "We are marrying the very best of breed and the leaders in their field and that's how we want to be perceived," says Kenyon of BSkyB. "One of the checkpoints [for partners] is if they are one, two or three in their sector or if they going to be. That position in their industry is critical, we think, to our positioning."

In another tie-up with BSkyB, Chelsea is involved in a reality TV show on Sky One, made by indy company North One, called Football Icon, allowing teenagers the chance to compete for a player's contract at Stamford Bridge. "These type of reality shows have been pushed around the industry for a long time," says Kenyon. "This one was different from the rest, not a fly on the wall but well structured and reaching a broader audience of kids which is an important factor. It had the ultimate prize of a year's contract to play youth team football at Chelsea. If we can find the undiscovered talent it's good for everybody."

Chelsea has ensured that it has television rights to repeat the exercise with youngsters overseas. "The ability to replicate that in key markets is a powerful tool of connecting with a football-going public in an international marketplace," says Kenyon, promptly citing China as an example.

It is not a great surprise that Kenyon regards BSkyB as a great partner for the Premier League. He recognises that the hunger of international television audiences for Premiership coverage is a big marketing tool for Chelsea and is anxious to be seen as supportive of the league's collective efforts to strike the best deal and keep ahead of Spanish, German and Italian rivals.

He admits that Chelsea are "seen as a bit of a rebel at the moment", which he says is not an objective. On the sports pages, Chelsea are often portrayed as the rich bullies, beholden to no one, including the football authorities. This is partly the result of Kenyon's attempts to lure to Chelsea not only United's Ferdinand and Arsenal's Cole but also England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Kenyon says there are several reasons for Chelsea's perceived rebelliousness. "The Ashley Cole issue, the fact that we have had so much success so quickly and displaced some of the traditional clubs up there, the impact of Jose Mourinho and the fact that the owner is an extremely wealthy man," he says. "What I can assure you of is that we want to work within the system."

Chelsea's CEO made £3.5m last year but his career success has put him in the media spotlight. When he left his wife and then moved in with a high-flying media lawyer, The Mail on Sunday reported the details in January under the headline "Playing Away".

Nevertheless, Kenyon is smart enough to recognise the value that publicity offers to the Chelsea business and insists there is no siege mentality at the club. "It's the media that has put us where we are as a world leader," he says. "We have got to understand that and make that work for us."

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