Crystal Palace FC and St John Ambulance: the reluctant brands

If I were a betting man, I’d put a tenner on the Tractor Boys to beat the Eagles tomorrow. Years of supporting my beloved Palace have taught me that an amazing period off-pitch will be ended, bathetically and cruelly, over ninety minutes. My local Championship side, Ipswich Town, are guaranteed three points down at Selhurst tomorrow.

What a few days it has been for the Eagles. Steve Parish, the new co-chairman, posted on the fans’ discussion board last night that Palace are out of administration. CPFC (2010) Ltd now own the club and also the ground. As I write this, Dutch legend Edgar Davids has just signed up to wear the red and blue (I’m sure it’s the return of the sash on the away kit that did it). And as part of CPFC (2010)’s commitment to improving the supporter experience, real ale will be available in the Red and Blue Bar tomorrow afternoon. This attention to detail by the new consortium bodes well.

Yet something is also due to happen tomorrow, something that reminds us of the very recent past. At half time, St John Ambulance want to thank nearly a thousand supporters of Crystal Palace and a fair few other clubs. When CPFC (2000) Ltd went into administration, lots of local organisations lost out. But the presence of St John Ambulance on the Crystal Palace creditors list struck many supporters as unacceptable. Discussion turned to a similar (though smaller) campaign by Portsmouth fans, and, to cut a short-ish story shorter, Palace fan Paul Browning set up a JustGiving page. The two main discussion boards, the BBS and Holmesdale Online, backed the campaign – indeed, the BBS sent an email to its 55,000 subscribers, to encourage them to do so. BBC commentator (and Palace legend) Mark Bright sent out the word on Twitter. The papers (national and local) got involved. The result: a very modern fundraising campaign that received backing from Palace fans in the UK and abroad, and also fans from other clubs. The target amount was reached in days. CPFC (2000)’s debt to St John Ambulance can be forgotten.

What’s rather amazing about this is that this wouldn’t have happened if Palace and SJA didn’t have strong brands, if people didn’t feel strong emotions about them. Palace fans were ashamed to be associated with a club that could screw over a charity. Yet football fans (at least, fans of clubs like Palace) and charities have a healthy mistrust of brands and branding. Football fans have a very deep emotional attachment to their club, and are proud to wear their colours. But try to commercialise that relationship and you run into difficulties. CPFC (2010) have been working hard to ask the fan base how best to increase income streams: there is a sizeable proportion of fans who have suggested that it isn’t worth trying – that they will continue to drink in the pub before the game, not in the stadium, whatever CPFC offer, they will buy their ticket for the game and that’s that.

Meanwhile, at St John Ambulance – as at most charities – things are much the same. There’s a reluctance to talk about branding, and a feeling that talking about service delivery is more important.

Like most things, that’s true up to a point. I’d guess that the vast majority of donations to Paul Browning’s campaign were inspired by St John Ambulance’s operations at Selhurst Park and other league grounds. Thousands of small interactions over the years, at Selhurst and at the majority of league grounds, have given St John Ambulance the reputation it has today – for good and bad. The statistics we used to so proudly emphasise are of less interest to the public than the essential truth: that St John Ambulance believe that no one should die because they needed first aid but didn’t get it. The millions of hours of this, and the thousands of volunteers of that, the size of our ambulance fleet, are not of interest to the person who needs first aid at that moment.

So tomorrow’s presentation is timely. Palace fans, rightly giddy of how far we’ve gone since the dark days protesting outside Lloyds’ headquarters, should be proud of the work we’ve done getting us to this point. What will the future mean for the Palace brand? It’s too soon to say, even if we know that the club is in good hands.

For those of us involved with St John Ambulance’s reputation, what this shows is the immense potential of our own brand. We’re in operation because we believe that no one should die because they needed first aid but didn’t get it. We’re in operation so that people can be the difference between a life lost and a life saved. We’re in operation, not as an end in itself, but to champion a cause. Which gives us a brand, reluctant or not.


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