What can product marketers learn from the Champions League final?
You do not need to like football to appreciate there's a lot a marketer can learn from the recent Champions League final between Manchester City Football Club and Chelsea Football Club. In this article, I discuss how success is earned, how history is a leading indicator for the future, having all the money in the world guarantees nothing and how the foundations of strategy determine the ultimate outcome.
What's nearly twice as big as the Super Bowl but hardly watched in the United States? With nearly 400 million viewers (1), it's the UEFA European Champions League final. Football may be considered 'the beautiful game' but quantifiably, it's the most popular one!

In this year's final, Manchester City took on Chelsea in an all-English affair and the game, unlike many finals before it, did not disappoint. It had everything including drama, twists, turns and a surprise outcome. Chelsea beat the favourites Manchester City who are my childhood hometown team.

After my tears had dried, I had exhausted myself by shouting at the TV and kicking the cat (metaphorically speaking of course). I then had to console myself with the fact that Chelsea deserved it. It was an unexpected masterclass, and not just for football fans.

There's much here that we marketers can learn from their victory too. Yes, even if you don't like football. There's not a lot the business world can teach sports, but there is much the sports world can teach business.

In this article, I discuss how success is earned, how history is a leading indicator for the future, having all the money in the world guarantees nothing (although it can increase the odds) and how the foundations of strategy determine the ultimate outcome.

No cats, metaphorical or otherwise were hurt whilst writing this article.
Success Is Never Guaranteed.

Being favourites in anything is akin to showing up and just expecting things to happen. Just because you had a great season does not mean you have a yard on the competition.

It's like your next product launch. Just because the last few went well does not mean the next one will. There's hard evidence in business for this. Just looking at the video games business, there are real reasons why no console manufacturer has even won two generations in a row when there were three major competitors in the market.

Success is hard earned every time.

Future Outcomes Have Their Roots In The Past.

The top-tier competition of European football is over 65 years old. Manchester City's recent 10-year history in the competition tells us a few definitive facts.

  1. They never got past the semi-final stage (until this year)
  2. Despite some legendary victories in the competition (including beating Paris St. Germain in this year's semi-final), Man City never beat another English team in this competition when faced with one. This is despite them being crowned as English premier league champions 3 seasons out of the last 4.
What if Man City had been a marketer? The first step in brand management is brand diagnosis. Learn from the past, understand founders, origins, trends and results from previous campaigns and then orient yourself for the year ahead.

We've never beaten another English team in the champions league, but why is that? If your campaigns had all previously failed, you'd need to know why wouldn't you? Or would you throw caution to the wind, shrug your shoulders and go ahead regardless?
The 25 clubs of the English Premier League.
The Biggest Budget Does Not Mean You Win.

English Premier League clubs spent almost £6 billion ($8.5B) to assemble their recently announced Premier League (think NFL or NBA) 25-man squads.

Manchester City has the most expensive squad in the division (2). The club spent £810.9m ($1.1B) in transfer fees assembling the squad they've submitted to the Premier League.

Chelsea has the third most expensive squad at £577.1m ($820m). They sacked their previous manager part way through the season after a very tepid start.

Despite spending over 28% more than Chelsea, success in winning European football's ultimate prize was far from given.

In marketing terms, you can have the biggest marketing budget but if you do not focus your resources and make the right choices, it's pointless and you'll achieve nothing but the sack.
Sony made the correct where to play and how to play choices in growing their share of the interactive entertainment market with PlayStation 2.
Strategy Is About Choice.

Choosing to change the formula of a successful team playing in the single biggest game of the club's history was a massive gamble.

You know your competition inside and out; this was the third meeting of these teams in all competitions in just the last six weeks. Chelsea's masterclass was two-fold. They knew how City would play. And with great discipline, they executed the perfect plan.

The book 'Playing to win, how strategy really works' (AG Lafley/R. Martin) is a masterclass in breaking down strategy. Not sports strategy, business strategy. Co-written by the former P&G CEO, it presents a framework for a strategy that is logical as it is empirical. I can summarise three key takeaways from the book:

  1. Strategy is about choice.
  2. You choose where to play.
  3. You choose how to play.
Points 2 and 3 are at the heart of strategy. In this illustration from my own career, I cite how Sony chose where to play (Spain), and how to play (positioned as entry to the then new DVD format) with PlayStation 2, by also using their core competency in that market.

In the book, there are many detailed examples from the P&G portfolio of these points in action.

If we apply them to the football game, we see Manchester City's managers' (Pep Guardiola) strategy is evident for all to see.

Pep chose not to use a tried and tested formula in his team selection that had served him and the team so well in recent years. Surprising many by choosing to not have a defensive midfielder and going for an all-out attack (offence), he left the last line of defence exposed and ultimately the team looked more vulnerable defensively as a result.

That played right into Chelsea's hands. As City chose to play an all-out attack, Chelsea chose to soak up the pressure and hit City fast and hard on the break, knowing they were more vulnerable at the back in defence.

They only needed to win by a 1 goal margin which leads me on to the next key point. Core competency is at the heart of what you can achieve.

Chelsea has defensive competency in abundance, they knew from previous meetings how to play the game against City. They knew their strengths and played to them. City underestimated the threat on the break and how Chelsea would work so hard to break their usual control and pass-and-move of the ball.

It reminded me, there's sometimes more than one way you can win but usually only one way to increase the odds of winning. [quote format]

A few years back in my career, I witnessed an incumbent multinational company that was number 2 to us in a particular category and market. They managed to get to over a 50% market share within three months. But how?
Where To Play And How To Play Choices.

By targeting a particular model directly with their competing model, undercutting on price, and advertising on TV, we watched as their significant brand awareness and preference did the rest to convert share away from us to them.

18 months before in this category, we were 100% market share as the only and leading market entrant. One thing that always happens in this situation is that if you are successful, you will not be the only market entrant for long. That's a guarantee.

Now they had over 50% and we were in steep decline. Do we do nothing? Did we not know what was going on?

We knew what was going on before it happened. We made the case to HQ, we presented mitigation plans, costs, impacts, etc. No one wanted to take the hit on the margin to defend that model in that market. I am not praising nor defending the decision, but the key point here is that this was a choice.

Strategically speaking, choosing to do nothing is as valid as choosing to do something but you must have conviction in whichever direction you end up swaying.
The Final Whistle.

Manchester City lost the game for two main reasons. Firstly, the choice the manager made in not playing his most consistent winning format by leaving out a proven defensive midfielder. But also because of Chelsea's masterclass in anticipating the competition, based on historical evidence but also, knowing that flawless execution of their core defensive competence would pull them through the game.

They would only need one goal to win. And so, it would come to pass that the game was won 1-0. Congratulations and respect to Chelsea.

I recall a keynote I saw in Seattle during my years at Microsoft. Kevin Turner, then Microsoft COO said on stage as he closed the event "a world class strategy is just a hallucination without world class execution".

Strategy is choice. But you need the core competency to execute it flawlessly. There's always next season.

Take care. Look after one another.



  1. and other various sources to validate.
  2. The Premier League.

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