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Branding and loyalty: What can firms learn from football?

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9th Jun 2010
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With the World Cup upon us, what can brands learn from the world's best-loved game? Might there be facets of the whole engagement model football that other businesses should take note of? Tim Bleszynski takes a look at why football evokes such a tribal reaction and examines how businesses can learn from the beautiful game...

Sandro Rosell, the vice president of Barcelona FC said recently, "People see Barcelona not as an industry, not as a business, more as a feeling. As a human being you prefer to be involved with a feeling or an emotion than a business. How do you describe a feeling? How do you describe love?"
Football might be "just a game" to some but it’s also big business – and a highly competitive one at that. Now imagine a world where consumer brands, regardless of sector, can evoke such emotional, unshakable reactions - a world where we choose a phone, smoothie or car not because it’s the newest, cheapest or has the best packaging, but because that brand represents something bigger that we want to be part of.
So what binds a football club together with such fierce passion?
There are towns with several local competing teams, so it's about much more than location or where you're from. It's not about the 'quality' of product or service either because there is the same - arguably more - passion from fans of lower league clubs. And the idea that it’s about a manager and eleven players on a football pitch is also not quite right - football clubs are built upon all the usual business-critical functions including operations, marketing, HR and finance. Internally, football clubs also have a big challenge in the vast disparity in wages of their employees – from the food and drinks attendant who earns the minimum wage, bringing home less than £20,000 a year, right through to the 17-year-old prodigy who earns over £60,000 a week – yet regardless of rank, they’re all equally as emotionally tied to the team.
The world of football has achieved something quite by accident that is the holy grail of brand loyalty. But what is it that fundamentally makes us so devoted to our football team and crucially, is it possible for businesses to emulate it?
United supporters are revolting
The key here is community. We as consumers don’t want to be sold to, we don’t like the idea that we can be told what to do, we want to feel like we have the freedom to choose – to buy into something that represents who we are – or more aspirationally, who we want to be. We want to be able to buy into something that will align us with likeminded people, letting us become part of a community.
Manchester United for example has established a fiercely devoted community of followers across the globe. Despite being from vastly differing countries and backgrounds they are bound by a common belief in what their club stands for. Importantly, this loyalty isn’t dictated from above, it’s organic and it’s authentic. The recent fan revolt against the Glaziers just goes to show how resilient such a tribal belief can be – the fans may have turned against the club’s owners, but their deep loyalty to the core values of the team remains unshaken, stronger than ever. As we have seen with Liverpool FC and its co-owner Tom Hicks, any move away from that core of authenticity and the fans rally together, prepared to protest.
Whether considering a football team or corporate brand, consciously or not, different stakeholder audiences are interconnected through various channels and when one group of audiences shifts, it will directly impact the others – this dynamic is a relatively new phenomenon within the consumer world, not to mention complex. This connected and visceral network of communities is a brand tribe – a group of individuals connected and driven by three things – identity, culture and belief. However you look at tribes, they are all powerful networks with the potential to assert huge influence.
Sweet spot
While organisations increasingly realise these groups are the key to business success in the 21st Century, very few companies are actually succeeding in engaging with their tribes in a way which works for the long-term benefit of their brand. Let’s consider the golden children of the brand world, Apple, Innocent, Top Shop and Virgin. Whether they are aware of it or not, they have engaged with the principles of influencing their brand tribes and have loyal followings to match any football team. Yet for every brand succeeding in engaging and influencing at this level, there are a thousand that are failing miserably.
With this ever-growing power behind consumer brand tribes, business leaders need to take a cue from the sporting world and nurture the ideal conditions for building unified and happy brand tribes - both inside and outside their organisation. Identifying a brand’s ethos and culture and placing it at the heart of the process is a critical factor to binding both internal and external tribes into a single belief structure. With that in mind, this ‘sweet-spot’ cannot be copied from brand to brand, it can only be achieved by ensuring an organisation takes a whole-systems approach to engaging employees, customers, and all other stakeholders in a cohesive and authentic manner.
As human beings we are programmed to want certain things. Chief among this is the need to belong. Human beings are tribal – there’s nothing new in saying that – it’s just high time more businesses took note. As we see in the sporting arena, brand tribes can become powerful allies or powerful enemies of a brand and those organisations that don’t identify and embrace their tribes or fail to interact with them honestly are likely to suffer at the expense of their competitors who do. What binds tribes together is belief and beliefs can be changed – evoke your tribe don’t provoke them.

Tim Bleszynski is the founder of New Brand Tribalism.

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