Spotlight: Interview with Felix Welling, Corporate Development Director at VfL Wolfsburg

Spotlight: Interview with Felix Welling, Corporate Development Director at VfL Wolfsburg
Under the motto "Fußball ist alles" (Football is more), VfL Wolfsburg was the first Bundesliga club to sign an eSports player, showing the club’s will to innovate and stand out from the crowd. In this exclusive Soccerex interview, Felix Welling, Corporate Development Director at VfL Wolfsburg, discusses the Bundesliga club’s experiences at the forefront of football eSports and explains the role it plays as part of their as their overall international business development strategy.

Hi Felix, thanks for taking the time for this interview. Currently, Wolfsburg have a football eSports squad with three players - one of them from UK -, have a dedicated eSports fanzone at the Volkswagen Arena and hold two FIFA Germany titles. Could you please tell us why Wolfsburg has set eSports as a strategic priority for the club and the evolution of this new project?

In our brand values and in our corporate strategy we point out that our club is a passionate football team with a clear focus on innovative developments on and off the pitch. We highly believe that the football club of the future needs to extend the business scope regularly in order to attract more fans and sponsors. As the first professional football club, we 2015 launched our own eSports team and we truly believed in the combination of real and digital football. The importance of eSports grows more and more and we can say that we are on the right path.

Felix Welling (middle) at the Soccerex Global Convention 2017

Can you tell us more about the dynamics of an eSports team? What qualities and skills do Wolfsburg eSports players have?

We pick our players very carefully. Of course TimoX, SalzOr and Dave BTW are first of all skillful and talented FIFA-players and they compete with the world’s best players on every tournament. For example, TimoX had a great FIFA 17-season and he finished as second at the FIFA Interactive Worldcup in London. Besides the talent and skills, we picked our players because of their great characters. They became important brand ambassadors for VfL Wolfsburg and help us to communicate with new target groups every day.

How does the eSports team fit into the structure of your club?

As we try to combine real and digital football authentically, it is very important for us to integrate the team smoothly. Our guys have close contact to our Bundesliga-players and we want our FIFA-players to feel as part of the team. On an organizational level we define our E-Sports-engagement is one of many digital activities and due to that it is an interdisciplinary subject. Social media communication, Sponsorship activation or special merchandising products are examples for the everyday work of the interdisciplinary team.

Last September, you joined a panel about international development strategies for football clubs at the Soccerex Global Convention. On stage, you said that “Wolfsburg has a B2B focus” and emphasized the strong bond Wolfsburg has with the car manufacturer Volkswagen. How does this relationship with Volkswagen impact your decisions regarding business development?

As being a 100% subsidiary of Volkswagen we always try to work together as close as possible. We share ideas on digital services, international activities and innovative trends on a regular basis. For both the club and the brand Volkswagen this is a unique team approach that we want to strengthen even more in the next years.

Which international markets are key for your club and what is your approach to grow internationally?

In our international strategy, we define China, Mexico and the US as our priority international core markets. In these markets, we invest in our brand awareness and sympathy with localized social media-agencies and we plan activities of our football teams and the football school on a regular basis. Especially in China it is very important to understand the culture and the preferences of the Chinese people and this is why we even opened a representative office in Beijing in 2017. In our office three employees help us to reach our goals on a BtoB- and BtoC-level and we underline our sustainable approach.

On social media, we can find Wolfsburg accounts in different languages. How important is it to talk to your international fans in their language and adapt your content to their needs?

From our point of view it is one of the keys to grow a football brand like VfL Wolfsburg internationally. We need to understand the needs and special interests of the fans in the different markets and localize the communication on the relevant social media-channels. Our twitter- and facebook-channels we run in German, English, Spanish and Portuguese and in China we run the relevant platforms Sina Weibo, WeChat, Youku and Nice. In addition to that, our holistic understanding of football allows us to play contents like eSport, successful women’s football or youth development-programs in the right markets.

How can Wolfsburg differentiate itself from the other clubs in Germany and the rest of Europe when looking to attract international fans? Is there a secret formula?

If there is a secret formula I wouldn’t tell it to you right now [laughs]. However, seriously I think that every football brand has a unique story to tell and relevance on international markets. The groundwork for international growth is sportive success and a continuous presence of the Bundesliga team in the core markets. With the help of sustainable activities, VfL Wolfsburg wants to inspire football fans worldwide, strengthen its brand and grow its B2B portfolio. The partnership with Volkswagen forms an important foundation for all activities, of course.

If users go to Wolfsburg’s website, they will find information available in Chinese and, as you mentioned, last March the club set office in China. How important is China to Wolfsburg’s overall business strategy and what are your next steps in the region?

China is our most important market and we concentrate our activities to leave a sustainable footprint and create a closeness between the club and all the Chinese partners and fans. Our office opening was a logical decision to underline our sustainable approach. Especially for our existing Sponsoring-partners in China this representative office is a very important factor for a direct and authentic communication. For the next years we plan to even increase the VfL-team in Beijing. 

In China, videogame competitions have gathered over 40,000 spectators in a single stadium and the eSports market is said to be the biggest in the world, even bigger than in countries like Japan, South Korea or US. Can your eSports squad help you engage with Chinese fans and increase the brand awareness of Wolfsburg?

E-Sports is a global phenomenon and we strongly believe that our approach can also help to grow our brand in China and other international markets. We have a close look in the market development and we wait for the right moment and approach to develop our specific activities.

Last month, Wolfsburg’s midfielder Daniel Didavi, announced that he had joined the Common Goal initiative and, as a club, Wolfsburg has CSR projects in Brazil and Mexico. Can you tell me more about the role CSR plays in Wolfsburg?

Sustainability and a close relationship to all stakeholders in the region of Wolfsburg play an important role for our club. Since 2010 we have our own CSR-team with four employees for our club-owned projects in the fields of environmental activities, integration and inclusion, health and education. With our GRI-certificated sustainability report we set new goals for us every two years since 2012 and make our work transparent. It is great to see that the Common Goal initiative finds more and more follower in world football and we are very happy that Daniel joined as one of the first.

Finally, you will be speaking at the upcoming Soccerex China event in Zhuhai, 17-18 April talking about eSports and the other aspects of the clubs corporate development strategy. What are you hoping to get from the event and how do you see it supporting your corporate development plans in China?

Soccerex is a quality brand for high-level business networking and interesting insights for the whole football industry. It is an important step for you to extend your activities to China with its remarkable growth of football activities in the last years. As experts on football in China and trend topics like E-Sports VfL Wolfsburg is happy to be an important participant in this event in Zhuhai. I am looking forward to meet interesting people from the industry and share information and insights for a productive event. Our goal is to reflect and seek new ideas and topics to integrate in our corporate strategy and I truly believe that Zhuhai will lead to that. In May 2016 we already had a great experience in Zhuhai when we played PSV Eindhoven in the beautiful stadium and I’m looking forward to come back and meet some old friends.

Thank you very much, Felix, and we look forward to seeing you and other members of Wolfsburg at Soccerex China next April.

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