Why Manchester United Fans Are Boycotting GM

From left: Anderson, Javier Hernandez, and Federico Macheda of Manchester United attend a Chevrolet event on July 26 in Shanghai Photograph by John Peters/Man Utd via Getty Images

As we noted last week, it’s never been easier for an upset group of consumers to launch a boycott against a brand and to use social media to spread the word and to recruit potentially like-minded customers. Don’t like the religious beliefs of the brand’s president? Boycott. Don’t like the way a brand treats indigenous farmers? Boycott. Don’t like the way a brand incorporates kangaroo skins into its soccer shoes? Boycott.

In the current media environment, it can almost seem like an inevitability to brand managers that at some point somebody will boycott their brand for some perceived offense, no matter how slight or seemingly absurd the cause. Just ask General Motors.

Last week, GM executives woke up to find themselves on the receiving end of a global boycott. Their offense? Sponsoring a very successful soccer team, whose fans are furious over changes in the team’s financing that they believe might possibly make the soccer franchise less super-successful in the future.

To wit: On Friday, Aug. 3, a group called the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) called for a “worldwide boycott” of all products by all the sponsors of their favorite soccer club: Manchester United.

The boycott includes GM, a major sponsor of the team. In 2014, GM’s Chevrolet brand logo will be placed on the team’s jerseys as part of a massive deal that will generate $559 million for the team through 2021.

MUST’s call for a boycott of sponsors is part of the group’s deeper discontent with the team’s owners, the Glazer family, which is currently in the process of taking the club public. According to a regulatory filing last month, the family is seeking to raise as much as $333 million by selling 16.7 million shares in the $16-to-$20 range.

According to the group’s press release, members of MUST are boycotting the team’s sponsors to highlight their belief that the initial public offering will benefit the Glazer family while harming their favorite team: “The planned IPO was initially intended to raise funds and to use all those proceeds to pay down some of the debt but in a u-turn the Glazer family now plan to take half the proceeds for themselves. The boycott strategy is intended to send a loud and clear message to the Glazer family and club sponsors that without the support and purchasing power of the fans—the global strength of the Manchester United brand doesn’t actually exist.”

Sports fans are perpetually enraged by the shenanigans of their favorite team’s owners (often with good cause). Typically, their anger boils over into boycotts during prolonged stretches of losing seasons. Not so with Manchester United.

Perhaps what is most odd about the call for a boycott, as pointed out by the Financial Times, is that the team has thrived on the field in recent years under the Glazers’ ownership: “So what did the Glazers do to bring about all this opprobrium? In the seven seasons since the takeover in 2005, the club has won the Premier League title four times and been runners-up on three occasions. They have also reached the Champions League final three times and won it once. It would not be foolish to argue that, on the field, this is the most successful seven-year period in the club’s history.”

If a brand can get boycotted for sponsoring that kind of performance, a brand can truly get boycotted for anything.

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