Maggie Murphy is CEO of Lewes FC, a fan-owned and community focused football club in the UK famous for being the first team in the world to commit to equal playing budgets for their women’s and men’s teams. They’re a big women’s football brand and have campaigned (across football, in general) on a variety of issues in their bid to do the sport differently.

I caught up with Maggie at Lewes’s home ground–the beautifully named, Dripping Pan.

Question: When you hear the word brand, how do you define it?

Maggie Murphy: I never liked the term brand. It felt corporate and calculated. But now, I see brand as the visual representation of a personality. It’s how you express yourself externally for those who don’t have the opportunity to meet the people behind the brand face to face. It’s what you’re trying to portray to the world.

The reason I had a reaction to “brand” was because it felt like something organizations composed and created, regardless of what was underneath. And probably because I feel that sometimes businesses prioritize thinking about brand before they think of the foundations, or what it is that they’re trying to do with their purpose.

Q: And when you arrived at Lewes FC, was the purpose already in place?

MM: I was drawn in by the purpose. When I arrived in 2019, the club had already taken the decision to split resources equally, between the men’s side and the women’s side. I’d had two years on the outside as an owner. I signed up to become an owner as soon as that commitment was made in 2017. And I could see the club on the outside. But there were still things that when I tried to engage with the club or wanted to connect with the club, I felt was lacking.

Q: How did you take people on that journey?

MM: Before I joined the club, the shift to Equality FC was swift. It wasn’t something focus groups or workshops had any scope over. At the time, the directors stood on a platform of equality–they were elected on it–and had just started implementing that vision. Some fans found it abrupt, despite the election. As a result, a lot of explanatory work had to be done over the last few years to connect with people, so they understand how this purpose impacts their lives.

Take our campaign for equal FA Cup prize money; some saw it as self-serving. We clarified: Imagine equal prize money, and we could build that much-needed toilet block tomorrow. Last year, our women earned £50,000 by reaching the Quarter-Finals of the FA Cup–an incredible feat for a small club. If they were men, it’d be £660,000. Connecting to these experiences makes the cause tangible and worth championing.

Q: So, in hindsight, would you have rather done some of the hard yards behind the scenes before going out with the purpose?

MM: I appreciate the swift decision and the positive outcomes it brought. While not my normal or preferred approach, it made me reflect on the drawbacks of intentional, thoughtful, and strategic processes. This ties back to why I saw “brand” as superficial–you must do the hard work first, and then the brand follows.

A recent example was marking International Day of Violence Against Women. We ran impactful activations, inviting a domestic abuse charity to our men’s game to talk to our largely male fanbase that day, and tied white ribbons to one in four seats, highlighting how one in four women will suffer violence in their lifetime. While Premier League clubs sent out branded tweets, some (even amidst players facing serious allegations) took no additional action. This underscores the idea that a mere visual display without the necessary groundwork results in brand failure. That’s when a brand truly falters—when the visuals are done without the essential underlying effort.

Q: What have been the advantages for you in having a very clear brand purpose?

MM: Making significant decisions becomes much more manageable when you’ve thoroughly considered your purpose. When the time comes for a bold decision–such as when we turned down gambling money, even though it would have been our most significant sponsorship to date–it’s surprisingly straightforward because you’ve already thought about what you stand for. Many brands find themselves in tricky situations because they haven’t contemplated their purpose. When unexpected challenges or opportunities arise, they end up scrambling.

Q: As somebody that wasn’t a Lewes resident coming into Lewes, were you able to have a fresh perspective about the town and see what the community had missed in branding Lewes FC?

MM: Lewes, as a town, is extremely unique. And there’s no getting away from that. You’ll have 10 people tell you how unique it is within the first week of living here.

Lewes doesn’t shy away from doing things differently, whether it’s staging a revolution over parking meters (residents famously blew up parking meters installed by the local council) or hosting its infamous Bonfire Night celebrations. There’s a sense of pride in being uniquely Lewes, which might come off as a bit antagonistic to those not from the town. Yet, that’s precisely what a brand needs–it needs to stand for something.

Maggie Murphy, CEO of Lewes FC, in her office
Maggie Murphy in her office, which is (of course) as colorful and wonderful as she is.

Q: How far do you think a brand can influence supporter behavior and beliefs as opposed to the brand reflecting supporter wants, behaviors, and beliefs?

MM: Football clubs have a huge impact on the way fans think. That’s why there’s such a duty and responsibility to do it right. We have more responsibility than other product or service brands because there’s so much human interaction in a football club.

For fans, it’s a form of escapism from the workweek, or they might be parents of children involved in the football community. It could be the child themselves who is eager to join the club to play. Then, there are our players, for whom it’s the primary source of income. And for the staff, it’s their career.

For everyone involved, it’s the most significant thing, unlike a brand like Apple or McDonald’s, where engagement with the product (while strong) isn’t necessarily the most critical aspect of their world. This is precisely why a football club has a substantial impact on how people think and, consequently, bears the responsibility to take that role seriously.

Q: So, football is not a business or a product, then? It’s tapping into a unique set of values and emotions.

MM: Clubs ignoring this face a tough road ahead. Nowadays, people are choosing clubs aligning with their values, not just supporting the local team their parents did. Bigger personalities draw fans. You’ll hear them say, “My values align with Forest Green Rovers, so I’ll support them, despite the longer drive.” (As a fully vegan football club, FGR is an obvious example.) It’s not just about convenience; fans are willing to travel 10 or even 20 miles for a club resonating better with their principles and values.

Q: A big club changing their brand to reflect those values takes a lot of unpicking. Does that put Lewes FC in a much more advantageous position than a Premier League club?

MM: It’s much easier to define your personality in a smaller environment. Of course, if you don’t have a widely known history that’s been written in history books, then you don’t benefit from other parts of a big club and certainly don’t benefit from the coffers of the owners.

Q: Although, we’ve seen clubs like Hashtag United appear overnight as an idea and suddenly find themselves positioned high up the pyramid. How does that play out?

MM: This shows that innovative clubs can be successful so long as the environment doesn’t prohibit new ways of operating. One of the challenges, however, is that your governing body needs to be malleable to new models. Currently, we possess the license to participate in the Women’s Championship, but certain criteria within the license seem outdated. This poses a challenge as these standards may not align with the evolving landscape.

For instance, license requirements often mandate a specific stadium size. So, we could lose our right to play in the Championship in the future if, say, they introduce a minimum stadium size of 10,000–even if we could be drawing in hundreds of thousands via our own online platforms. It’s an example of your governing body not quite keeping up with where things could go, and the fact that we don’t have to have a cookie cutter approach to football clubs anymore.

Q: Earlier on, you used the word quirky as a description of Lewes. And I agree, it’s this pride in being different. So, how does the quirky translate in Lewes FC?

MM: Probably just by not looking the same. For us, it’s in the details–like fonts inspired by the old printing press here in Lewes. We’re keen to make sure what we put out there isn’t just about following the latest trends.

I’m constantly trying to figure out how we can present ourselves in a surprising way. Again, it comes down to having a personality. If you look at the social media graphics for the Premier League clubs, you could swap out the colors and the featured player, but essentially, they’re all the same.

When we do our social media graphic design, if something comes back and looks too polished, I don’t like it. Because we’re not polished. And even if the people who designed it for us think that we are aspiring to be a top professional club, that doesn’t have to be replicated in the way we look. We can keep our unique edge.

Q: As a brand leader, what do you try to remain mindful of to keep a consistent brand going?

MM: Well, I have to be careful because what I want isn’t necessarily the “right thing”. Consistency is a bit of a challenge for us because we’ve allowed ourselves to be so flexible (our posters, for example, of which none look the same). And so, you risk getting drawn into a place where none of your branding looks the same.

I believe it’s crucial to keep in mind the core skeleton. External documents should harmonize with that core, even if the creative elements–like the “hair”–get to be wildly different and change week by week. Your bones still need to convey a sense of purpose.

Even if we’re going for fun, different, or quirky, it must be in the right places–not everything should be a wild experiment. Our approach is more like matching their process; each one is different or uniquely uniform, if that makes sense. It’s not about having a brand and occasionally going off-script; it’s that every single piece is distinct.

Q: Do you think other clubs are aware of brand? I mean, the Premier League is undoubtedly aware of brand, but when you look around (especially at non-league), do you think they are becoming more brand savvy?

MM: You really notice the ones that stand out. Most clubs are chasing that glossy image, so when you stumble upon someone taking a different approach, you can tell they’ve put thought into carving out a unique angle.

One of the major challenges facing women’s football, in my opinion, is branding. It’s tough to establish a distinct brand when you’re overshadowed and dependent on the men’s side of the club.

The club that’s leading on this angle is Arsenal. They get it. They understand that you can have a different brand identity for your men’s and women’s sides, which might share some common notes but look refreshingly different. Arsenal gives that autonomy, and it’s paying off in terms of branding, marketing, and drawing people to the games.

Q: Could you see a point in time where a women’s team wins the WSL without having a men’s team attached to it?

MM: Ah, well I dream of it. I don’t think it’s impossible. The key lies in external investment. There are investors out there who could make it happen relatively easily, given a span of five to ten years. Of course, this hinges on their willingness to inject significant amounts of money, although not on the scale of what’s currently poured into US teams, for instance.

I’m really rooting for it to become a reality, whether it’s Lewes or another trailblazer. I believe it’s crucial for women’s football to have its own identity, distinct from men’s football, and to embark on the unique journey it’s capable of. For this to materialize, we need distinctive, independent voices and clubs at the table and in that league. Otherwise, there’s a risk of it just becoming a shadow version of the Premier League.

Q: When it comes to brand thinking, how do you shift your mindset to think differently?

MM: The rules were never crafted with me in mind, so I’m not about to conform to rules that weren’t made for me. It’s all about embracing openness and freedom. In an environment like Lewes FC, you can pilot and test whatever you like–nothing’s too out there. If it works, fantastic. If it doesn’t, no big deal.

I reckon, in other organizations, there’s probably too much risk to step out of their “Pantone”. You need that freedom to experiment. I believe there’s nothing you can’t play around with and mix up a bit, especially in the football world. And if it drives some people crazy, that’s a good thing. You’re asking questions about tradition–what’s worth keeping and what needs to evolve.