25 Jun 2019

The sense of English eccentricity

John Shaw writes in Campaign on the Carabao Cup move to the UK.

Image credit: Campaign 

The announcement that the draw for the Carabao Cup was to be made in a Morrisons store in Colindale, north-west London, was the football equivalent of Richard III’s body being discovered under a council car park in Leicester – unexpected, intriguing and rather British.

The cup’s two previous draws had been in Bangkok, home of the sponsoring brand, and Ho Chi Minh City, home of the morbidly fascinating military tunnels. Both are a long way from Colindale. So what does this mean? Is it a profound commentary on the nature of modern sports marketing, just a random thing or somewhere in-between?

I didn’t properly understand English football until I moved to Asia. One of my first conversations in Hong Kong was with a taxi driver who talked eloquently and with complete accuracy about the capacity of the Birmingham City defence to grind out away draws. Admittedly, this was as much about gambling as football.

But in Shanghai a few months later, I went to a bar to watch a game. It was packed with Manchester United supporters, seated in rows, being whipped into a frenzy of loud enthusiasm by operatives drilled in every Man United song and chant that has ever been written.

I’d gone to watch an innocent game and been caught up in a ruthless brand activation programme. No wonder the English game now raises such strong passions all over the world.

Image credit: Campaign 

This global appeal explains the strange disconnect felt by a visitor to, say, the Emirates Stadium nowadays. On the surface, nothing much has changed for years. The songs about Tottenham are only slightly censored and the pervasive aroma from the burger stands remains half-sickening, half-irresistible.

But once you’re in the ground, it’s always slightly odd to see ads in Chinese for beers that certainly aren’t available on Holloway Road. It’s a powerful reminder that more people are watching the game in Asia than in the UK and that English football represents a patchwork of global commercial opportunities.

Carabao isn’t the first non-British brand to sponsor a major English football competition, but most of the others have been major global brands such as Coca-Cola or Budweiser. The brand’s home country is Thailand, where Aed Carabao is "what Springsteen is to America and Marley is to Jamaica".

English football is extremely popular in Thailand and neighbouring Vietnam, so locating the first two draws there made total sense, even if drawing Charlton twice in one competition didn’t.

"The decision to move to Colindale might be about reconnecting the competition with its home market and bringing it closer to its roots. On the other hand, locating it in a supermarket may simply be a way of building the brand’s presence in the British grocery trade and driving some energy at point of purchase."


But it may also just be about doing something a little unexpected and slightly odd, and I suspect that’s actually closest to the truth. Consciously or unconsciously, Carabao and the EFL have turned the Carabao Cup draw into an event that is big news for major global media such as The Guardian and, by locating it in the Colindale Morrisons, they have continued to build its fruitcake mythology. It has helped to make the brand slightly eccentric (and don’t we love that in this country?).

At least it’s a long way from the glossy and opaque world of major organisations such as Fifa, Uefa and the International Football Association Board, all cloistered in plush locations in Switzerland. (Graham Greene might now say that, after 600 years of democracy and peace, all Switzerland has produced are cuckoo clocks and VAR.)

Carabao is an energy drink, after all, and probably makes you go a bit nuts when you’ve had too many, so it makes good brand sense to stand apart from all that comfortable seriousness.

This leaves one obvious question: where should the draw be held next year? The choice needs to be newsworthy again and there can really only be one option: Cannes.

The timing is right and the town’s connection with football is deep. Many Lions attendees have fond memories of watching the World Cup or the Euros, packed into Irish bars with a fragrant selection of the world’s finest creatives.

The sight of an appropriately attired Ray Parlour strolling down the Croisette would be welcomed by many and the social potential is huge, given that all Cannes attendees post ceaselessly to demonstrate the enormous value of their attendance.

Now that the festival makes significant demands on the brain as well as the liver, the mild chaos of a Carabao Cup draw in Cannes would provide a valuable moment of light relief.

First published in Campaign.