You'll Never Walk Alone: Passion, branding and the Liverpool Football Club

You'll Never Walk Alone: Passion, branding and the Liverpool Football Club

Summary: Whether a business is a sports club or a company like Harley Davidson motorcycles, having people who live what you stand for is a hugely desirable asset, but which is much more fragile than many people realize.


If you follow the soccer world you'll probably be aware of the high noon around the storied Liverpool Football Club,  seventh in the The Deloitte Football Money League (a ranking of football clubs by revenue) whose current owners, messrs Hicks & Gillett, are currently two of the most hated people in England.

Hicks and Gillett purchased the business in 2007, but after a tempestuous, debt laden period of ownership the duo are locked in a boardroom battle in a last ditch bid to sell the club for a profit. Debt to the Royal Bank of Scotland now stands at £200 million, costing £40 million in interest repayments every year, and the video above shows the level of anger from the fan base, represented by SOS (Spirit Of Shankly).

The unfolding events are interesting partly because of the voice the fan base - one of Liverpool's key assets - has in expressing themselves through broadband and modern mobile and 2.0 technologies.

Most business executives aspire to the worship a successful sports coach or manager receives from adoring supporters when their team succeeds, and Liverpool's past includes a legendary giant of a manager in Bill Shankly. The spectacular success Liverpool enjoyed internationally under Shankly between 1959 through 1974 is a pinnacle of unpretentious, working class/blue collar achievement in English sports.

Shankly, who had a tough upbringing in a Scottish mining village before becoming a successful player for his country, had his own brand of humanitarian based socialism.

Deeply loved and revered in Liverpool, Shankly once said "...if everyone...does all the small jobs to the best of their ability, that's honesty and the world will be better, and football will be better, so what we want is hard work and no football club is ever successful without hard work"

in 1973 when he and the team were parading the League Championship trophy to fans, a Liverpool scarf which had been thrown at Shankly was thrown aside by a policeman. Shankly picked up the scarf and reprimanded him, saying "Don't do that. This might be someone's life".

With echoes of what people today associate with online 'social media' interactions, Shankly had a strong feeling for Liverpool fans and the depth of their faith, and felt he was personally letting them down when the team didn't do well. He was often seen at his typewriter, personally replying to letters from fans and even called some supporters at home to discuss the previous day's game.

Shankly's timeless, authentic and clearly heartfelt communication is at the heart of what many confuse and conflate with 'branding' in the current era. There has been much discussion of Liverpool over the last three years around the idea that Hicks and Gillett purchased a brand, assuming its supporters would follow like sheep wherever they went. The level of anger and insult is palpable in the video above, and the future strength of the football club is now in serious doubt.

Shankly is an interesting example of a leader who deeply believed in collective effort, with "everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards". While this is the type of approach many companies wish to inculcate in their employees, and the spirit software vendors claim is an attribute of their collaboration enabling offerings, the current situation at Anfield, the Liverpool ground, illustrates the wide gap between words and actions.

Liverpool supporters sing 'You'll Never Walk Alone' AC Milan 2007

The powerful authenticity people feel when they stand and sing "You'll Never Walk Alone" (originally a show tune from 1945 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel). with the faithful on Liverpool's Spion Kop (the spiritual epicenter of the Liverpool stadium named after a Boer War battle and massacre in 1900) is an immensely powerful thing that relies on collective belief that reinforces itself.

Whether a business is a sports club or a company like Harley Davidson motorcycles, having people who live what you stand for is a hugely desirable asset, but which is much more fragile than many people realize.

While following Liverpool or buying a Harley are discretionary activities - although practically a religion for some people - employees can develop a very strong bond with their place of work which can rival the passion and depth of faith of the sports fan.

This passion is fragile because disillusionment and alienation can set in quickly, as happens with a sports franchise that is between glory days. Leadership is a great catalyst for belief - setting goals and leading by example. while football is a hard nosed, highly competitive capitalist business the operational ranks were well served by a manager with a  populist touch. (Shankly joined the fans in the kop when he retired).

Leading by example from the front can seem a hackneyed cliche of leadership...but we certainly get inspired when we see it happen, whether in sports or business. Conversely the toe curlingly awful behavior of cynical financial opportunists poisons the deep bonds people feel with brands and employers amazingly quickly. There's a lesson here for executing strategic collaboration initiatives across business.

The best laid plans and technology buys are worthless if management are not practicing what they are preaching at an operational level, meshing business goals with appropriate, more efficient ways of working and picking the tools that will facilitate and simplify. This sounds obvious but the sobering lesson at Liverpool - whose team performance is suffering as a result of the lack of trust and security around their direction - is a good analogy to the confidence, clarity and clear direction participants need to feel to successfully collaborate.

At an operational level Shankly's famous quote from his all conquering international glory days at Liverpool could apply to the motivation of a global workforce today:

"The socialism I believe in is not really politics. It is a way of living. It is humanity. I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day. That might be asking a lot, but it's the way I see football and the way I see life."

Here's a packed, swaying Kop singing Beatles songs back in the sixties when they were happy under Shankly, and what they are singing en mass today to their current management (not safe for work).

Topics: Collaboration, CXO, Enterprise Software, Software, IT Employment


Oliver Marks leads the Global Digital Enterprise Team at HP, having previously provided seasoned independent consulting guidance to companies on effective planning of business strategy, tactics, technology decisions, roll out and enduring use models that make best use of modern collaborative and social networking tools to achieve their business goals.

These are Oliver's views and not those of his employer HP.

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  • RE: You'll Never Walk Alone

    Not the first place I expect to read about Liverpool and Shankly but have to say this was an excellent piece!
  • Constant Tension

    The situation for designers within, say M$ or Apple, must be one of constant tension: their ideas constantly crippled to meet corporate goals. I feel this from the outside as a consumer, so goodness knows what it's like internally!

    At a football club everyone is geared towards winning the game, whereas software design is akin to HAL in 2001 ... the purity and excellence of the computer poisoned by the contradictory corporate target.
  • RE: You'll Never Walk Alone

    As someone who is not particularly a football fan, I've looked at this debacle at Liverpool FC from the sidelines. I think there's an inevitable tension here between the fans' aspirations (and Shankly's) and the fact the club is a business institution. The contrast with the internet generation & 2.0 is that the first interest is often that of entrepeneurship and the second the social aspiration. It will be notable how both these games get played out. As someone once said, 'it's a game of two halves'.
  • YNWA...Hicks should be shot, picked up, and shot again

    For the record, I am a life long (so far!) Liverpool FC supporter.

    I have never had a problem with Mr Gillett, in fact it seems even HE doesn't want to be involved with Mr Hicks.

    Let this be a lesson to any company thinking of purchasing something with such a deep felt, supportive, fan base. That love can quickly turn to hatred. LFC will always have its fans, but a business could quickly be seriously financially affected by a fanbase backlash, the likes of which we are seeing with LFC...
  • RE: You'll Never Walk Alone

    H&G are only hated on the red half of merseyside and that's now a fairly small city. I'd say the collective body of Liverpool fans are hated more UK-wide. The use of Youtube was also a double-edged sword; it may have given the Kopites a lot of fun, but I think we can safely assume H&G never saw it It back-fired because it's given the rest of the country even more ammunition when they criticise incoherent and whining scousers.