- Signing Japanese international Takumi Minamino can have an immediate impact on Liverpool’s popularity in Southeast Asia
- It will be harder for the 25-year-old to become a face of Liverpool in China and Korea, two countries that do not always have warm relations with Japan
- Strategies are in the works for Liverpool to reconnect with Asian football fans and potential sponsors
European champion Liverpool is set for a first English league title since 1990, and with charismatic coach Jurgen Klopp working with big stars such as Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Virgil Van Dijk to produce an exciting and winning style, has the ingredients to challenge Manchester United as the most popular English Premier League team all over Asia.
This, coupled with the club’s storied history, can give sponsors the edge when it comes to marketing to this new decade’s spending demographic in Asia, according to Peter Moore, the club’s chief executive.
“Our fans in Asia are generally much younger, whereas in the UK we have generations of ‘Reds’,” Moore said in May, pointing to the average age of 25 for Liverpool fans in China. “We just have to engage these young people in a way that entices them.” Asian sponsors such as SAIC Motor Corporation of China, according to Moore, love Liverpool’s heritage.
Yu Jingmin, deputy general manager of SAIC, was singing from the same hymn sheet in June 2018, as MG China, a subsidiary of SAIC, and Liverpool announced a continuation of their partnership.
“Liverpool FC is a century-old football club, just like MG is a century-old sports car brand, yet both always remain young at heart,” Yu said. “MG is very focused on interacting with young people both online and offline, and focuses on the development of popular communication methods… MG’s ultimate goal is to connect with young people.”
The Minamino effect
The signing of Japanese international Takumi Minamino should take Liverpool to the next level in Japan.
Liverpool signed a global partnership agreement with NH Foods of Japan last April and local partners should follow.
One leading East Asian sports marketing agency told SportBusiness that Liverpool would be able to double or triple the fees it demands from sponsors here, up to as much as $4m for a global partnership.
And this summer would be the perfect time for Liverpool to visit Japan, with Minamino as star attraction making up for the absence of some big stars busy with Euro 2020.
While the effect of Minamino is likely to be limited in India, China and South Korea, he can also make a difference for Liverpool in Southeast Asia.
“People here will see him as Asian,” says Sasi Kumar, chief executive of Red Card Global, a Singaporean sports and digital marketing agency. “They know Japanese players and the Japanese game.”
“I would engage Asian brands, using Minamino as a brand ambassador. He could be a major face for Liverpool in Asia,” adds Kumar. “The starting point is image rights but localisation of content is also key. The video of Minamino’s arrival at the Melwood training ground on his first day was viewed millions of times and it would be interesting to see data on that, with most views likely to have come from Asia. They localise content to create reach in the beginning and then take the data back to potential sponsors and brands and tell them ‘look what we garnered with his first video’.”
Kumar says it is up to Liverpool to leverage the player, and the recent announcement that Nike will replace New Balance as the kit supplier from next season should help. Nike has agreed to sell Liverpool products in no less than 6,000 stores worldwide and use figures such as Serena Williams and LeBron James to promote Liverpool products worldwide.
At the moment availability of merchandise is an issue in Japan, says Masanori Kawana, East Asia managing director for sportswear retailer Fanatics. “For merchandising, I see a huge opportunity to capture by increasing assortment and improving service level. Unfortunately availability is limited and the time it takes to get the products delivered is too long. By developing products that Japanese fans want with shorter lead time, there is significant room to increase merchandise sales.”
Those sales could go through the roof if the example of Yuta Watanabe, the Japanese star who plays for NBA team Memphis Grizzlies, is anything to go by.
“We sold more jerseys over the last three months of 2018 than LeBron James jerseys in the entire year in the country,” says Kawana. “And when [MLB star Shohei] Ohtani won Rookie of the Year in 2018, we sold four times more Ohtani merchandise in Japan in 24 hours than all of the other MLB players combined sold in the previous month.”
Kawana advises that Liverpool consider a local production facility. “You need to be able to produce bespoke products on demand or replenish product quickly…the key, for us, would be to also have locally designed products bespoke for the Japanese fan, to add more choice for the fans and to complement the official replica shirts.”
Chasing Man Utd?
Manchester United has held the dominant share of Asia’s Premier League fanbase since the league ‘went global’ in the 1990s. Liverpool’s on pitch improvement will give more bargaining power – and in less mature sponsorship markets such as Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, sources report a shift toward Liverpool – though experts believe it would take at least five to ten years at the performance status quo for the club to match United’s commercial power.
Liverpool’s current list of sponsors and partners in Asia include NH Foods of Japan, Thai coconut water supplier Chaokoh of Thailand, and Extra Joss, a health supplement provider from Indonesia. That should expand.
“Whenever business development staff from Liverpool came to Asia for sponsorship pitches, in the past they would talk about how they were the most trusted European club,” says Neel Shah, head of new business & sports education at India On Track, a Mumbai-based sports development and management organisation. “Now though they are not just a good team but fun to watch and people enjoy being associated with them.”
“If Klopp and the stars stick around and more come through, then the fanbase will grow almost exponentially,” adds Shah. “Success and results are everything in South Asia and as such the region has been dominated by Manchester United. But I can see a time when Liverpool have a bigger fanbase. The growth of Liverpool in South Asia will be faster than Manchester United’s growth was in the past, due to social media and technology.”
Social media is an obvious battleground. On Twitter, Indonesia and Japan are the two Asian markets in which both clubs share a localised presence. In both cases Liverpool is second to United in terms of total followers, with 39,000 to 73,000 in Japan and 186,000 to 764,000 in Indonesia. Both clubs also compete for fans offline, with events like former Liverpool goalkeeper David James making mango sticky rice in Bangkok last year, or the ‘I LOVE UNITED’ live fan events held in India, China and Dubai in recent months.
Asian experts expect the efforts to intensify in the coming months and years.
“Commercial success comes on the back of sporting success as Manchester United have shown in the past. They were very aggressive in their commercial approach in Southeast Asia, ”says Kumar. “Liverpool need to be just as aggressive as United were.”