THE FLAWED LOGIC BEHIND THE REBRANDING OF HULL CITY AFC

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At the meeting between Dr Assem Allam and supporter groups on 1 November 2013 to discuss the proposed name change for Hull City AFC, the Chairman referenced “marketing science” as the rationale for changing the club’s name. He cited the example of Manchester United FC temporarily dropping the letters “FC” from their badge, arguing that this had attracted American investment, resulting in the Glazers’ takeover of Manchester United.

In March 2013, the club’s company name was changed to Hull City Tigers Ltd, and a process of gradual rebranding is occurring, with an amended “Hull City Tigers” crest being used increasingly widely. The media and other clubs have been instructed to identify the team as Hull City Tigers in advance of the brand eventually becoming Hull Tigers.

Guardian journalist David Conn interviewed Dr Allam in September (see http://bit.ly/ConnAllam). As he later recounted in an interview with talkSPORT (see http://bit.ly/talkConn), after the article was published, Dr Allam’s secretary forwarded Conn the summary page of a study which he claimed supports his belief that his “name shortening” project has a logic and science behind it.

This summary relates to the paper “Company Name Fluency, Investor Recognition, And Firm Value” by T Clifton Green and Russell E Jame (viewable online here: http://www.viewdocsonline.com/document/kpzlit), originally published in the Journal Of Financial Economics, and later mentioned on the Harvard Business Review blog (which, it appears, is how it came to Dr Allam’s attention).

In its complete form, this article runs to 59 pages. Its authors are from the Goizueta Business School, Emory University, Atlanta and the School Of Banking And Finance of The University Of New South Wales respectively. It is unlikely the authors could have ever imagined that their abstract, which pertains to portfolio stock investors, would find itself at the centre of a row about the historic name of an English Premier League football club. Nevertheless, it has.

CORE THESIS

The core thesis of the article is that companies with names that are “easier to mentally process” – ie those with greater “name fluency” – have higher breadth of ownership (more shareholders), greater share turnover (more trades of their stock), and lower transaction price impacts. So the more “fluent” the name, the more successful the stock is likely to be. The article explores how familiarity with and affinity to a name as a result of its fluency may influence investor behaviour.

This is a hypothesis that pertains to stock portfolio investor behaviour and the human choice dynamics of people looking at thousands of publicly traded stocks. Hull City Tigers Ltd is not such a stock. Upon further reading, it becomes clear that the application of this hypothesis has been further confused with marketing and brand strength theory.

The opening line of the abstract gives a major clue to its lack of relevance: “Choosing from among the thousands of stocks to invest in is a difficult decision for most people”, it begins. Choosing one of twenty clubs competing in the English Premier League is a rather simpler business.

Even if we ignore this basic fact, the authors’ hypothesis does not support the theory that Hull City Tigers or Hull Tigers are more marketable than Hull City AFC.

“ENGLISHNESS” OF A NAME

The first element of the authors’ theory of fluency is the “Englishness” of the name; in this context, “Englishness” refers to the English language, not the culture of the country. Using the Englishness algorithm of Travers and Oliver (American Journal Of Psychology, 1978), word and sentence structure can be assessed mathematically for “Englishness” based on their relative common pattern to other commonly used words, phrases and letter combinations. A word has greater “Englishness” the more commonly its letter clusters appear in the English language; to use an example cited in the article, the letter combination “THE” appears in printed English 500 times more often than “THL”. So a name with the letters THE in it has a higher Englishness value than one with THL.

The insertion of the word Tigers, as in Hull City Tigers or Hull Tigers, significantly reduces the “Englishness” of the name. “City” is a common suffix in the English language, also appearing in words like “electricity”, “publicity” and “capacity”; “ity” is also a common letter cluster. “Tigers”, on the other hand, is a unique letter cluster. The very “commonness” that Dr Allam decries actually increases fluency.

The article also talks about rebranding and the impact on linguistic fluency. This concerns both phonological simplicity (does it sound correct?) and lexical simplicity (is it easy to say?). Though this is a “subjective experience of ease with which people process information” it seems clear that in this respect Hull City is more fluent than both Hull City Tigers and Hull Tigers.

OMITTED EXPRESSIONS

A further aspect of fluency is the length of a name. In the article, the authors suggest that for the purposes of analysis we should first “remove expressions that are part of the legal name but are often omitted when referring to the company”, such as Co, Corp, Inc, Ltd, LLC, and FSB. The acronym AFC is clearly just such an expression – it is already habitually omitted when referring to the club in an informal context. They similarly suggest dropping conjunctions such as and/or/the.

If we accept that the principles set out in the paper can be applied to football, in its current form Hull City (eight letters) is actually the fifth most investable Premier League team, with Fulham (six letters), Arsenal (seven), Chelsea (seven) and Everton (seven) being the only shorter team names. Rebranding to Hull Tigers (ten letters) sees us slip further down the fluency table to join Aston Villa (ten), behind Liverpool (eight) and Stoke City (nine).

CONCLUSION

There is little to be gained by trying to stretch this theory further by applying it to an unintended target. The application of this hypothesis to the company name or team name of an English Premier League football club is sure to descend into farce.

The bottom line for this analysis is that the very renaming or “name shortening” proposed by Dr Allam actually has the opposite result to the course of action recommended by the paper cited as its justification. By any measure of the theory, changing to Hull City Tigers or Hull Tigers makes the “fluency value” worse. Far from supporting Dr Allam’s case, this paper actually contradicts it.

Chris Cooper is a partner with a global consulting firm, visiting professor for the Buckingham University Business School, co-author of Winning By Design, and author of The Little Book Of Lean.

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