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Should we treat football clubs as fan brands?

This Saturday afternoon, I made the return trip from South West London to Goodison Park, Liverpool to watch Everton take on Leeds United in what can already be seen as a relegation battle at the foot of the Premier League.

Walking around the stadium pre-match, we chatted to Leeds United fans as well as Evertonians and it's always interesting to see the mix of emotions and perspectives among fans when it comes to their teams' performance, especially during a time of struggle. Despite the current challenges, it was encouraging to see that both Everton and Leeds United fans having hope, however misguided, for the future and are looking forward to better times ahead.

It's worth remembering that football deals in dreams. Not realities.

There aren't many other businesses where the apparent product, a winning football team, can patently fail to deliver on it's promise.

The nature of any league, by definition, is that each year, only one team can win. In the case of the Premier League, nineteen teams will fail. If we say only 4 of those teams start the season seeing success as a league title, 75% of them will fail in that ambition. 3 of the 20, or 15% will actually lose their place in the league and play next season in the Championship, and yet fans will keep turning up.

On Boxing Day 2018, 46,039 fans were at the Stadium of Light to see Sunderland play, not in the championship but in third tier League One. The same year saw average attendances in the Premier League of 38,484. Clearly, relegation, twice, didn't put Sunderland fans off.

It's clear that for fans, supporting a football team is about much more than just the results on the pitch. It's about the sense of belonging, the emotional connection to the team, and the social connections that come with being part of a community of fans. This creates a unique relationship between fans and the football club brand that requires a different approach to marketing and engagement.

We see a Fan Brand as a brand that goes beyond providing a product or service, one creating an emotional connection with its customers. This emotional connection can lead to loyalty and a sense of belonging to a community or group, which is what we refer to as Identity Value.

Creating a Golden Triangle (we do like a triangle) is a powerful way to understand this emotional connection with customers. By focusing on the three corners of People, Place, and Club, brands can create a sense of community and belonging for their fans.

However, it's important to note that authenticity is crucial in building this kind of connection. Customers can sense when a brand is being insincere or trying to manufacture an emotional connection, which can actually hurt the brand's reputation.

That's why it's important for brands to genuinely invest in building relationships with their customers and create a sense of community that is based on shared values and interests.

For football clubs, understanding the different needs and motivations of fans is essential to building a successful and sustainable brand. By creating opportunities for fans to engage with the club and with each other, football clubs can perhaps look to build an even stronger community of loyal fans who will continue to support the Club, even in the face of disappointment on the pitch.

The three distinct audiences that we have identified as making up the customer base for fan brands, Believers, Followers, and Friends, all have their own relationship with the brand.

Believers in football clubs are often season ticket holders but not necessarily. These fans eat, breathe, drink and sleep the brand. Any defeat ruins not only their afternoon but their week, and possibly their relationships. identification is so strong with the brand that defeat is personal. It hurts.

Followers may once have been believers or may yet become them but their relationship is a calmer one. Yes, defeat hurts and can spoil the afternoon, day or weekend but life goes on. They can compartmentalise the hurt.

Friends have a more casual relationship with the brand. It may grow over time into something more beautiful or intense or they may simply remain friends. They start the relationship almost as tourists with part of the joy of going to games being around Followers and Believers. Without these vocal and passionate authentic football fans, what's the point of being friends?

And each group needs the other.

Believers need validation from followers and friends to reinforce their own identity as fans. Believers own identity is tied up as being more of a fan than followers and friends. Those that get the greatest value from the myth Whereas Followers rely on the Believers being there to provide an authentic fan experience. Friends are drawn to the credibility of both Followers and Believers and use the club as a social platform to connect with others, on the day and throughout the week in conversation.

Fan brands exist outside football of course. Apple, Guinness, Harley Davidson, It's interesting to see how fan brands exist in various industries, not just in football. As a marketer responsible for a fan brand, it's important to recognize and engage with different types of audiences, such as Believers, Followers, and Friends, who may have varying levels of loyalty and interest in the brand.

It's also crucial to avoid referring to football clubs as "brands" when engaging with believers, as this can be a sensitive topic that may not sit well with them (a lesson I learned in a focus group at Fulham's Craven Cottage, I don't think I've ever seen hackles rise more quickly). Ultimately it's about respecting your audiences and giving them something real.

Having said all of this, a win always lifts the spirits and having witnessed Seamus Coleman's incredible match winning strike on Saturday, I'm now convinced we're going to escape relegation this season.

Come on you Blues!



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