focus on st pauli

Pirates and Pyramids

October 26, 2010
By Uli Hesse
(Archive)

Don't mess with the logo, they say in that hip discipline known as "branding". However, it seems this only applies to soup cans or shoe polish, not to football clubs.

St Pauli's ubiquitous skull and crossbones
Soccernet / Uli HesseSt Pauli's ubiquitous skull and crossbones

There have been quite a few cases of crass crest correction in England, from Ken Bates changing the Chelsea badge in 1986 to the more recent and less drastic modifications at Aston Villa in 2007.

The two most infamous instances probably concern Fulham and Arsenal, who completely overhauled their logos in 2001 and 2002, respectively, because the old ones were so intricate and ornate the clubs couldn't copyright their own crests.

Logo tinkering is less common in Germany, I guess without having statistical data to back up this impression. The most controversial case I can recall concerns Karlsruhe. In 1997, the club added a red and yellow pyramid to the old, simple blue-and-white badge. It gave the crest a modern, 3D-ish look ... and thoroughly confused anyone who didn't happen to know that a small sandstone pyramid, built in the 19th century, stands on the city's market square and that Karlsruhe's city colours are red and yellow.

The new badge so enraged the majority of fans that they launched a campaign in 2003 to get rid of the pyramid. Even former players like Edgar Schmitt and Gunther Metz supported the pressure group. A year later, Karlsruhe caved in and went back to the traditional crest, at about the same time Chelsea introduced yet another new logo, based on the pre-1986 one.

This summer the question of what exactly constitutes a traditional badge and how to calculate the worth of a logo returned to the Bundesliga, because both promoted teams - St Pauli and Kaiserslautern - have been debating such issues.

In late June, Kaiserslautern not only changed their badge but also the colour of the team's shirts. Neither was new, though. The club went back to the hue the team sported from 1955 to 1969, maroon rather than red, and the slightly spidery crest used during those years. Yet their reason for doing so was not unlike the motive that drove Fulham and Arsenal - marketing considerations.

Kaiserslautern's supplier Do You Football (despite the name, it's a German company) designed a retro range complete with an outdated badge, because the team, according to a club statement, "will play the whole of the current season under the claim 'Tradition-laden club since 1900'". (The English word "claim", in case you're confused, is German marketing gibberish and means an advertising slogan.)

"We regard ourselves as an innovative and modern club that has its roots and values in a long and eventful tradition," director of football Stefan Kuntz said. "The range and the motto are meant to make clear that we honour this tradition and that it forms a strong part of our identity."

It was a smart move and a clever statement. In the world of football fans, few catchwords are as powerful and sacred as "tradition". So where Chelsea, Fulham and Arsenal blundered by selling people something new as innovative and modern, Kaiserslautern sold something new as traditional and old.

It sort of worked, as many fans liked the revivalist look. But there are also dissenting voices. Somebody who calls himself Neil said in an online discussion about the crest's design that "this supposedly traditional badge was in use for 14 years and the logo that is about to be replaced for more than 40 years. So which one has the longer tradition?"

And someone named Tyson added: "You have to have blinders on to not realise that this is just a marketing measure to boost merchandise sales. But I guess we are more than blessed with tunnel vision in Kaiserslautern."

He is right in that Kaiserslautern's fans will support anything that smacks of tradition even more strongly than their counterparts elsewhere. Which can be a bit of a problem for a club that is based in an economically weak region and is crippled by debt.

Some standard methods of generating revenue, you see, are out of bounds for a club like Kaiserslautern because they would result in fan revolt. Such as selling the naming rights to the ground, the Fritz Walter Stadium. That, I guess, means you have to sell retro chic.

At the other end of the country, meanwhile, a club also supplied by Do You Football, also notoriously cash-strapped and also freshly promoted, has managed to find another take altogether on the question of tradition and marketing - they are selling radical chic.

Uli Hesse
Soccernet / Uli HesseUli Hesse in front of the stone crest that stands outside St Pauli's ground

We are talking about St Pauli, of course, the craziest and coolest club for, er, most people's money. Outside their ground, you'll find a huge stone version of the club's crest, a crest that has undergone only one major change in the club's entire history, and that was more than 60 years ago.

But the funny thing is that St Pauli have another logo, nowhere near as old as the badge but universally much more famous and popular, not to mention more readily recognisable.

The story of that logo goes back to the 1980s. The exact year is a matter of debate, because the man who got the ball rolling was drinking heavily then. Thus the details are hazy, though St Pauli's recent centenary exhibition says the year was 1987 and circumstantial evidence has me presume that's correct.

What happened that spring was that a punk rocker known as Doc Mabuse passed through the famous Hamburg funfair called the Dom on his way to a St Pauli game and somehow arrived at the ground with a pirate flag in his hand. (These days, he sometimes says he actually paid for the flag, but that's far-fetched.)

Such flags depicting the skull-and-crossbones image are popular on funfairs because kids like them, and they are even more popular in a city like Hamburg, home of Germany's most renowned pirate, Klaus Stortebeker. And they were particularly popular in Hamburg in the 80s, when punks and anarchists famously squatted in unused houses in the Hafenstrasse and used the flag as a symbol of their resistance.

And so the skull and crossbones quickly became popular among St Pauli's then not very sizeable contingent of fans. The club wasn't too happy about being associated with pirates, so it was left to the independent Fanladen, which opened in early 1990, to produce self-designed T-shirts and sweaters with the new anti-logo.

(Fanladen translates as fan shop, but this one had and has nothing whatsoever to do with official merchandise. Think of a place run by fans for fans, social work with punk rock music blaring in the background.)

But even at the most resolutely anti-capitalist club in the land, money talks. By 1996, there was an injunction suit filed by the small, local textile printing store that produced the shirts against a company that had begun using the Jolly Roger too. In the course of this struggle, the logo as we know it today was at last copyrighted. (Doc Mabuse's original skull, incidentally, wore an eyepatch.)

This would soon become important, because by 1998 the club had finally realised how attractive this image was and used it for a marketing campaign. Two years later, St Pauli FC at last purchased the rights to the logo and first put it on the players' shirts.

A St Pauli fan waves a flag prior to Saturday's game against Stuttgart
GettyImagesA St Pauli fan waves a flag prior to Saturday's game against Stuttgart

It should have been a goldmine for the club. People all over the world buy Oakland Raiders gear just because it looks cool and the same holds true for the stylish St Pauli fan rags. And the truly priceless aspect of it all was that this highly marketable logo had come from the fans themselves.

And so St Pauli should be in the unique position of having it all without really having done much. They have the history in the form of the classic crest, unchanged since the late 1940s, and they also have a very modern and innovative second logo that will shift units all by it itself. And if anybody complains that the skull and crossbones is hardly a traditional football image, St Pauli can shrug their shoulders and say: Don't blame us, blame our supporters.

Oh, what Stefan Kuntz - and probably even the Fulhams and Arsenals of the marketing world - would give for such an opportunity! And St Pauli? They fret. Because they pocket no more than a measly 10% of the merchandise profits.

Back in 2000, the club needed money so desperately that they sold all kinds of marketing rights to an event agency by the silly name of Upsolut. Four years later, St Pauli renegotiated this disastrous deal - and managed to make things even worse. The club did get some crucial rights back, but only in return for a huge slice of the merchandising cake: Upsolut was granted 90% of those rights - for a preposterous 30 years.

Last October, the club decided to challenge this deal in court on account of unconscionability, but with typical St Pauli luck, Upsolut has since been bought by a big French media group that has the cash and the clout to just sit out such things.

Which has me suspect those branding experts do have a point. Don't mess with the logo - and if you do, make sure you have a clever explanation. Above all, don't entrust your logo to an agency with a silly name. That reminds me ... did I mention Do You Football declared itself insolvent in July?