Can Chicharito Make the Bayer Brand Stand For More Than Just Aspirin?

Chicharito is a marketing executive's dream. But can his club turn Chicharito fans into Leverkusen fans?

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Jan 29 2016, 5:45pm

Credit: ROLF VENNENBERND​, EPA

A couple months ago, I toured the Eichbaum brewery, which is located not far from my apartment in Heidelberg, Germany. You've probably never heard of Eichbaum. It's not famous in the United States. It's not even really famous in Germany, so I was surprised to learn it is one of the largest private breweries in the entire country. As you might imagine, the domestic beer market in Germany is, well, competitive. And as I walked through the various brewery buildings, inspecting holding tanks and water pumps, I wondered how a beer I've only seen sold in the area immediately surrounding Mannheim, the city where it's brewed, could compete with Germany's most iconic brands. Who was buying all that beer?

The tour guide had an answer. The majority of the company's beer, he told me, was exported. In 2015, the company projected it would export 70 percent of its product that year. The tour guide claimed that in parts of China, Eichbaum's premier export market, the beer was so ubiquitous and had such great market penetration that Eichbaum's Chinese brand name was the word for beer in parts of that country—not unlike how Kleenex is a synonym for all tissue paper in the U.S.

I was thinking about this last month as I sat in the press box at the Bayarena, home of Bayer 04 Leverkusen. A cold rain drizzled on the field below, where Bayer took on Borussia Monchengladbach in a Bundesliga match. As I glanced around the stadium at the supporters of both teams, it struck me that the beer market and the soccer market are not so different. And perhaps more than any other club in Germany, Bayer is trying to pull an Eichbaum—with its star player, Chicharito, as its primary export.

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Look at the big picture. There are 56 professional teams in the Germany's top three divisions, and something like 25,000 semi-pro and amateur clubs under those. Like the beer market, the market for German customers (or "fans") is as saturated as it gets. Everybody has a team, which means if you want to grow your soccer brand, your best bet is to find a whole new group of everybodies.

I'll explain how Chicharito fits into this in a minute, but first I need to tell you about Bayer, because the club occupies a kind of unique position in the constellation of German soccer clubs. To begin with, Bayer 04's domestic following is among the smallest of any Bundesliga club. This is in part because of where it's located: Leverkusen is an industrial city 30 minutes by train from central Cologne. It has a population of around 120,000 residents. But the club's small following—the Bayarena sits just over 30,000 spectators, which is tiny for a team that's almost always in the Champions League—isn't just attributable to demographics. There are cultural factors,too.

Credit: Marius Becker, EPA

These cultural factors are probably best understood in comparison to Gladbach. Gladbach is what German fans call a Traditionsverein (or a "traditional club"). It's a nebulous term. Traditionsvereine are typically old clubs that had a measure of success prior to the formation of the Bundesliga in 1963. Most of them began as neighborhood sports clubs sometime late in the 1800s. Although some of them are now wildly successful—I'm looking at you, Dortmund—success today doesn't really matter. Being a fan of a Traditionsverein is cool in a kind of hipster, been-doing-it-longer-than-you sense.

Bayer, on the other hand, is not a Traditionsverein in the eyes of most Bundesliga fans. This is confusing and sounds unfair, because Bayer 04 Leverkusen has technically been a team since 1904 (hence the 04 in the club's official name), so it has plenty of historical tradition. But while Gladbach, and just about every other team in Germany, is primarily owned by its club members, Bayer 04 was founded by Bayer employees and remains the sole property of the Bayer pharmaceutical company. German soccer fans view Bayer 04 as a corporate entity rather than a community organization—imagine how American NFL fans would feel if the Seattle Seahawks were a wholly-owned Microsoft subsidiary. (In Germany, Wolfsburg, Hoffenheim, and RB Leipzig are similarly corporate and "uncool.")

In order to differentiate itself—and perhaps wean itself off its parent company's money—Bayer has, over the last decade or so, branded itself as both family friendly and upscale, or what Jochen Rotthaus, Bayer's Director of Marketing and Communications called "klein und fein" (a rhyme meaning "small and elegant.") I can testify that the game experience at the Bayarena is pleasant to the extreme. The first class lounge is spacious where other clubs' feel crowded, like a high school cafeteria. There's not a bad seat in the entire stadium, and if you get up to get a beer, there are TVs everywhere. The club may have a small fan base, but the Arena is always full—it was tied for No. 3 in number of sellouts last season—and it's extremely loud inside, which makes for an exciting atmosphere. Even the press box had a little shine to it.

Klein und fein is great, but it doesn't bridge the gap between Bayer's 30,000 home fans and Dortmund's 80,000-plus. So over the last five years, Bayer has shifted its strategy. In addition to klein und fein, Bayer 04 is now aggressively courting foreign fans. To some extent all European clubs are doing this, but given Bayer 04's domestic situation, foreign fans are worth far more to the club than most of its competitors.

Bayer's strategic shift coincided closely with its signing of South Korean attacker Son Heung-min in 2013. Rotthaus told me Son was "almost like the Beatles, a superstar, [in Korea]." What better way to kickstart an overseas marketing campaign than to have a Beatle wear your shirt?

The club held a training camp in South Korea in 2014. Screaming teens met Bayer's plane at the airport and camped outside the team's hotel. The tour was a success in terms of ticket sales, but shirt sales were disappointing. The real disappointment, however, didn't occur until after Bayer sold Son to Tottenham last summer: today, six months after Son's transfer away from Bayer, the club has no registered, official fan groups in South Korea.

Credit: GIUSEPPE MAFFIA

The club, in other words, largely failed to convert Son fans into Bayer fans. Bayer did not become the Eichbaum of South Korean soccer, synonymous with the sport. This is something Rotthaus is determined not to let happen again. Enter Chicharito. If Son was a Beatle, Chicharito is a marketing phenomenon the likes of which Germany has never seen before.

"We know Chicharito won't always be there," Rotthaus said. "Everyone leaves. Therefore we must make sure our club brand is so established that the people say 'Chicharito plays for Bayer 04, but when Chicharito isn't there anymore, I still love Chicharito, but my new love is Bayer 04.'"

One measure of Chicharito's popularity, and his impact on Bayer's marketing department, is social media. Chicharito had over 5 million Twitter followers when he joined the team in the summer of 2015. Bayer's official German Twitter, by contrast, had about 200,000. The team saw an opportunity given the player's popularity in the United States and Mexico, and launched both Spanish and an English Twitter accounts. The Spanish account had over 30,000 followers in just a couple weeks. (It's now north of 50,000). This might not sound like much, but again, Bayer's German Twitter account, the account that serves its home market, has a little more than 240,000 followers as of this writing. The club's Facebook account has also grown at a rate of about six percent over the last month, which, according to Bayer's own statistics, is higher than second place PSG, which saw about 3.5 percent growth during that period; or Bayern Munich's, which saw around 1.5 percent grown.

The club isn't just trading in the digital currency of thumbs ups and heart "likes", though. It's selling shirts, too. In the weeks following Chicharito's transfer, Bayer sold between three and four thousand shirts in Mexico alone, despite Mexican fans having to pay a $20 import tax. (The club has since found a manufacturer in the United States, which brought the shirt price down.)

Finally, to top off the marketing blitz, Bayer participated in January's Florida Cup as part of its mid-season training camp. The team played friendlies against Colombia's Santa Fe and Brazil's Inter, while trying to put forward that same welcoming atmosphere it prides itself on in Leverkusen. The team even squeezed in a trip to Disneyworld, for the families.

Credit: ROLF VENNENBERND, EPA

Beyond social media and a U.S. tour though, Rotthaus wasn't very specific about his plans to convert Chicharito fans into Bayer fans. Perhaps he simply didn't want to reveal his strategy. Other European clubs will be watching, after all. But where he was vague in details, he was full of optimism. He has a right to be. Bayer's major advantage in international marketing is the same thing that prevents it from taking its rightful share of domestic fans: its parent company.

The club might be small, but the pharmaceutical company earns close to $40 billion in annual revenue, or roughly four times the entire NFL. Bayer made its name when it developed a synthetic aspirin in the mid 1800s, and those five letters are what generations of people all over the world have thought of when lying in bed hungover or feaverish. It was one of the world's first global brands, and Bayer 04 has access to the company's global marketing apparatus. If Rotthaus has his way, Bayer will become a synonym for quality soccer just as it is for aspirin. It doesn't seem far-fetched that the club could attract 70 percent of its fanbase from abroad. The club may never be German soccer's Budweiser or Heineken, but I imagine Bayer would be to happy maximize its niche and become the Bundesliga's Eichbaum.

On the night I was at the Bayarena, the season was almost half over and both teams were near the top of the Bundesliga table, fighting for European qualification, so the result had increased importance. Bayer and Gladbach approached the first half cautiously, and by halftime the home team had managed a 1-0 lead, thanks to a goal from Stefan Kiessling, but the second half was all Chicharito. Between the 63rd and the 76th minute, Chicharito scored three goals. (He has scored 19 goals in all competitions since joining Bayer.) After his third, the loudspeaker played the Mexican Hat dance, and fans danced in the stands as Chicharito pumped his fists in front of the adoring home public.

I checked Twitter. It was going wild, too, and I realized that maybe the formula for converting Chicharito fans into Leverkusen fans is as simple as this: goals. Lots and lots of Chicharito goals.