Across the UK, schools, golf clubs, town councils and especially football clubs have a coat of arms as their identity, it’s all as British as a cream tea. However, it seems that this particular form of logo or corporate identity might just turn out to be a ticking bomb for thousands of them.
In the past few weeks that bomb exploded for Scottish football team Airdrieonians. The club’s DIY badge triggered a complaint from the English Intellectual Properties Office and has led to action being taken against them.
Airdrieonians suspect that their woes originated from a complaint by a fan from an opposing team. However, regardless of how events unfolded, they have now been told by The College Of Arms that they are in breach of a law passed in 1592 prosecuting anyone using “unauthorised” coats of arms and that they should get a new badge or face prosecution.
Others have run foul of The College over the years: the seaside town of Deal and its football club were told that they were not entitled to use their emblem, Donald Trump was forbidden to use his DIY crest to market a £1 billion pound golf course in the UK, and 1,500 Scottish schools were required to pay an £830 bill to register their badges!
Although those involved in these skirmishes were undoubtedly crestfallen the recent events in Scotland’s football community may end up making them all pale into insignificance and could eventually lead to major English clubs giving their DIY coat of arms the boot.
We’ve talked to Clive Cheeseman, Richmond Herald at The College of Arms who confirms that, apart from the Corinthian Casuals, none of the clubs in England (either rugby or football) have been granted a coat of arms. So, the problem currently facing a total of 20 clubs in Scotland may be about to spread south of the border where Arsenal, Bristol City, Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa, QPR, Newcastle United, Cardiff City, Fulham, West Bromwich, Stevenage and Ipswich all run the risk of being hauled into court if any complaints are made and upheld.
The College is most concerned about clubs that have what appears to be, to a layman, an actual coat of arms – it’s a sort of passing off thing. Clive put the case most succinctly, “There are lots of quasi coats of arms being used by clubs that feature a lion or a unicorn or other heraldic symbols in a shield. Basically, if it looks to a layman like a coat of arms then it should be granted by The College and if it’s not granted by us they shouldn’t be using it.”
Bad news too for clubs that have borrowed the arms of their home-town or city. They probably do not have the right to use it in their badge – even if the coat of arms has already been granted. The rules of the College are quite clear on this point, the arms are for the person or entity to whom they were granted and cannot be used by others. So, you may be flattered if you are a city council and your footie team wants to use your pukka coat of arms but sadly you are not allowed to let them.
Clubs that have registered their coat of arms as a trademark may also not be entitled to do so. It appears that the trademarks office might have given permission to identities that don’t belong to the applicant because they are deemed to be a coat of arms and have not been registered! Apparently, best practice here is that the trademarks office should point applicants seeking to register what appears to be a coat of arms in the direction of The College at the time of registration.
So far, it appears that 40 professional teams in Scotland’s top six tiers and in England’s top two could all be asked to redesign their club badges, because they contain common heraldic images, such as animals, in their shielded crests.
Mostly dating back to the 16th century, crests are an early form of trademark or logo originally belonging to noblemen but then extended to cities and towns. Since the 19th century football clubs have been borrowing identities from their local towns, many of which contain heraldic images.
The bizarre situation that clubs find themselves in right now just goes to show the importance of proper brand design management and the creation of something that’s both legal and fit for purpose.
Sadly, a lot of club identities are verging on being home made, a hangover from ‘the good old bad old days’ when design was regarded by club management and fans as superfluous softy stuff. By and large they are capable design jobs but lacking in the creative and intellectual ‘surround’ that takes into account the brand DNA and brand ambition of the club.
Creating an identity is a complex area where so many things needs to be addressed and I would recommend any club embarking on the process to create a check-list of the things that really matter. First of all, acceptability to fans and connection with the history and heritage of the club and its local community. Secondly, many badge type logos may look great on a jersey but do not work equally well in the digital arena or on the spectrum of applications that range from mugs to signage. Thirdly, developing a mark that’s both own-able and distinctive is paramount especially when clubs now have a reach that extends far beyond the borders of the UK. Arriving at something that will resonate in overseas markets as well as domestically is vitally important. Lastly, the brand must be your registered intellectual property and this must be disaster checked without fail.
Cautionary tales abound about those who didn’t disaster check their branding process. For example, the re-brand of Fulham FC in the 2000 -1 season (from the Hammersmith & Fulham coat of arms to the new Euro style badge) was as a result of the FFC not owning the copyright to the heraldic crest, and therefore not controlling their IPR. Just two seasons later Arsenal held a court case against a rogue street vendor who had produced counterfeit kit with the then Arsenal badge on it. They were unable to prosecute him, because they did not have registered trademarks or copyrights in place, so he hadn’t actually infringed!
Given these two scenarios, plus the additional tension around owning your image rights, gives greater call for clubs to audit their current brand identity. I expect that many clubs will want to follow Manchester City’s example and go back to the drawing board to create something that is wholly own-able and defensible which will not put them on the wrong side of an obscure 16th century law.