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Red, white and proud: how Atlético de Madrid became a global brand

Adrián Mediavilla

Head of Planning

Señora Rushmore






The agency I work for, Señora Rushmore, opened its doors in 2000 with a single client: Atlético de Madrid Football Club. Atleti, as it’s known by its fans, was the first football club in Spain to understand that it could become a brand in order to boost their business, and promptly hired an ad agency to help them with that task.

The Real Academia de la Lengua Española (Royal Spanish Academy) defines pride as “arrogance, vanity, excess of self-esteem that is occasionally acceptable when derived from noble and virtuous causes”. If there is a particularly noble and virtuous cause that Spaniards are proud of, it is sport. Sport is massive in Spain: according to the Association for Media Research (AIMC), in 2016 one out every two Spaniards watched sport on TV regularly1 and sport is the number one topic people seek information on, ahead of music, TV programs or politics. Moreover, the CIS (Sociological Research Center) Barometer of 2014 found that a full two thirds of Spaniards would like their children to become a professional sports person.

Spain is a country proud of its football: two of every three Spaniards say they support a football club and one in two have purchased a ticket to a live football match in the last year.

Spaniards are clearly great football fans … and yet only 6 percent of them are Atlético de Madrid fans, while 25 percent support Barcelona and a whopping 38 percent support Real Madrid.

Historically, Atlético de Madrid has been the second club of Madrid, lagging behind its rich neighbor, Real Madrid. Back in 2000, Real Madrid had just won their eighth Champions League trophy. Atleti, on the other hand, lost the only final they ever played – in the very last minute of the match. The never-ending misfortune of the rojiblancos (red and white as per the colors of their kit) had earned them the nickname El Pupas (the jinxed team) among football fans.

Bad luck struck again when on May 7, 2000, after a dreadful season, Atleti were relegated to the second tier of Spanish football for the first time in 66 years. And yet, what clearly was a football tragedy became an amazing client brief: how do we keep Atleti supporters engaged with the club in spite of the relegation? The result was the campaign “A year in hell”, which unleashed fan pride and triggered an influx of new fans: the number of season ticket holders went up by 50 percent, from 30,000 to 45,000.

Unfortunately the club, being true to their unlucky heritage, did not get promoted after their first season in “hell”. However, once again, football drama turned into the campaign that is now the most acclaimed football club advert ever. In it, we see a kid ask “Dad, why are we Atleti fans?” but his father has no answer; he just can’t explain the pride he feels for his beloved Atleti in spite of all the defeats.

The club’s odyssey in the second tier of Spanish football lasted two seasons, and when the club finally got back to La Liga, at the agency we carried on building the brand from a strong foundation: the particular idiosyncrasy of Atleti fans. Rojiblancos are modest yet optimistic, fatalistic but persistent. The genuine Atlético supporter keeps an unbreakable faith in the red and white stripes and the strength of a community of fans that is pretty extraordinary, even by Spanish standards.

And suddenly, as the jinxed club hit back at the top tier of Spanish competition, the unexpected happened: they started to win! In 2010, Atleti lifted the Europa League cup. In 2012, another Europa League trophy was claimed. Two years later, with the legendary Diego Pablo El Cholo Simeone on the bench, Atlético de Madrid snatched a La Liga championship from the hands of giants Real Madrid and Barcelona.

From a communications standpoint, we then had a big challenge: how to explain that a charming underdog had somehow turned into a winning machine. The strategy was more obvious than initially expected: not even victory can change the essence of authentic people like Atlético fans. Atleti may win or lose, but will never surrender. Or to quote El Cholo Simeone: if you truly want something and you’re ready to work hard enough for it, then anything is possible.

The proof of this approach is that in 2017 Atlético de Madrid are moving into a new and better stadium, updating their badge to mark the start of this new era where the club competes on a global scale with brands from England, Italy and Germany. Today, there are Atlético fans clubs in 26 countries around the world, from Germany to Argentina, from Poland to Peru. As these lines are written, Atleti has made it to the top four clubs in Europe for the third time in four years.

Atleti can’t stop growing. But even more importantly: win or lose, Atleti fans just can’t stop believing.