The new Premier League logo will find its way onto the shirts of the country’s top 20 football teams next season. So too will the logos of every team's shirt sponsor – a range of brands who collectively paid over £220 million this season to have their brand printed on the front of every player and fan’s shirt.
While these lucrative deals get sponsors plenty of exposure and TV coverage, they are missing out on a huge opportunity to build their brands by not fully engaging with the thousands of fans who buy and wear shirts that have their logos emblazoned across the front.
It reminded me of the time a few seasons ago when West Bromwich Albion didn’t have a shirt sponsor for a while. Fans saw the shirt without a sponsor logo and absolutely loved it. And not just my teary eyed generation who remember the days before shirt sponsorship deals. There was a lot of chatter online from younger people who also preferred the sponsor-less shirt.
It’s true that as fans, we might all prefer our beloved team’s kit not to exhibit corporate logos, but we’ve come to accept that these commercial deals are an important part of football today. We might have a grumble about how a sponsor’s logo looks in situ, but as true fans we’ll always buy the shirt, regardless of whose logo is on the front.
Football fans are a unique audience in this respect. Brands can enter sponsorship deals 100 per cent safe in the knowledge that they are not going to be rejected and that the product they're sponsoring already has a fiercely loyal following. In this case, they should be using the golden opportunity to grow their brands by having richer conversations with such a passionate, captive audience. And it’s not just the Premier League either, this applies to brands who sponsor football shirts across all leagues, around the world.
As far as I can see, the relationship always tends to stay between the shirt sponsors and the clubs. Instead I’d encourage shirt sponsors to open this out to the people who wear the branded shirts week in, week out. The shirt itself is the perfect vehicle to drive a deeper relationship with the fans, after all, brands are touching the skin of every fan who wears their team’s shirt. I mean more than simply relying on a CRM system that pulls everyone’s data in and delivers impersonal messages to their inbox.
There is a fantastic opportunity for sponsors to do little pieces of activation and communication on the kits to get fans closer to their brands. This is particularly true for the 14 foreign shirt sponsors this season who I imagine see the deals as a way to help solidify their brands in the UK and other markets. It’s a great strategy, but I don’t believe it’s enough to sponsor a shirt and and leave it at that. Like with all sponsors, these deals should be bolstered with a more direct line of communication with fans if it is to have any genuine and lasting impact.
Umbro was on the right track as far back as 2008 when they designed the England kit and included a piece of QR code stitched on the inside of the shirt that linked to exclusive online content and competitions. This was a clever and subtle way to communicate straight to the fans, and at the same time acknowledge the personal connection they each have with their own football shirt. Granted, it was a bit ahead of its time, but given the way that technology and social media has developed since, I don’t see why shirt sponsors aren't finding many more innovative and creative ways to engage with fans.
As part of sponsorship deals, brands often get access to players for use in their campaigns and media. Why not think about giving that access back to the fans by creating opportunities and competitions for them to potentially meet the players or tour the ground? Or why not use that privileged access to create new content that enriches fans’ experiences of their team, and at the same time, the sponsor brand. The opportunities are endless, and the key to it is understanding the mindset of the fans.
When dedicated football fans faithfully put on their team’s shirt, they put all reservations about being walking adverts for sponsor brands to one side. Their allegiance to their club is what counts the most. But wouldn't it be amazing for shirt sponsors to give something back in return and build a relationship with the fans, without whom there wouldn’t be any sponsorship deals in the first place.
Andy Hunns is creative director at Clinic