Manchester City: Why tweets count as much as trophies in the push for global power

Commercial revolution at Manchester City aims to make them one of the most recognisable brands on planet football – as it's the only way they can compete

There really is no doubting how Manchester City have made themselves the model of the modern, outward-facing club. Yes, they have struggled in the Champions League over the past two seasons, but they were top of the league of websites for clubs competing in the 2011/12 competition, based on an independent assessment of usability, design and quality. Only Arsenal came close among English teams.

They have also been voted best football team in the world for the use of social media, second only to basketball's Los Angeles Lakers across all sports.

However, it is only when you consider the respective brand equity of the players at their disposal that it becomes clear what they are up against as they seek to plant a foot on three continents and tell the world what it means to be City, as their terrace song goes.

Wayne Rooney has 5.5 million Twitter followers and Javier Hernandez 1.3m, while the entire population of south-east Asia seems to hang on Shinji Kagawa's every word – even though he doesn't utter too many. City have one, perhaps two, global superstars – Sergio Aguero, with 3.3m Twitter followers, and David Silva, who doesn't tweet a lot, with 760,000 followers.

You might think such things don't matter as much as what happens on the field of play. Sir Alex Ferguson once said that he'd rather his players went down to a good library than tweet. But this is how a good club becomes a global club and why driving up Twitter followers matters more than you might think at City.

For their chief executive, Ferran Soriano, seeking to make good on the vast Abu Dhabi investment, only being one of the top six teams in the world will do. "Consumers in general are able to remember five or six brands in each category [of business] but not 20," he has said of his time turning Barcelona into the force they have become. "In 2003 [at Barcelona], we were running a very high risk of not being able to bridge the gap with the top clubs, and Barcelona remaining a small local brand."

But the task Soriano faces at City bears no resemblance to the one the then Manchester United chairman, Martin Edwards, undertook in 1992. Edwards hired Edward Freedman as head of merchandising and saw him drive the marketing juggernaut United became. There was no Financial Fair Play to restrain United then. FFP will hinder City and there is no Lionel Messi coming through for Soriano, as there was when he went to work in Catalunya.

Chelsea will vouch for how difficult it can be turning a wealthy benefactor's investment into the kind of global brand that persuaded Saudi Arabian telecoms firms and Japanese paint manufacturers to pay heavily for an association with Manchester United. Ten years after Roman Abramovich's arrival at Stamford Bridge, and despite winning three domestic titles and a European Cup, Chelsea still trail United for global reach.

All of which explains the commercial revolution – including the search for possible partner clubs – going on behind the scenes at City as they attempt to drive up the revenues in lightning fast time. The domestic potential is limited – over 70 per cent of the TV audience is overseas – so Soriano will do whatever it takes for City to command global recognition.

He tells a story of how a Japanese barman in Tokyo, hearing him talking in Catalan, approached him to say "watashi wa kaiin desu!" ("I am a member") and flashed his Barcelona membership card. This is the kind of recognition he wants to replicate at City.

He probably didn't bank on his first season in the job finding City so far behind United in the Premier League and Europe's best in the Champions League. City might yet win the FA Cup but there are only two trophies that matter.

It is easy to see why, for all the trouble he sometimes caused, Mario Balotelli was a player whom the City owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, genuinely liked to have at the Etihad – he brought attention to the club. It is partly for this reason that Barcelona are signing Neymar, and Edinson Cavani is so attractive to Soriano and City's director of football, Txiki Bergistain, who drives the transfer policy. These are players to make the world wake up to a club.

When United were making their giant strides across world football 20 years ago, Edwards could just have gone out and bought the equivalent of both.

But Soriano is operating in more straitened times and his task is infinitely more complicated. The subtitle of his management manual, which draws on his success at Barcelona is: "Goal: the ball doesn't go in by chance." Never has the mantra been more appropriate.

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