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Why brands should treat their consumers more like sports fans

By Thomas Hobbs, Journalist

January 14, 2020 | 9 min read

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Brand marketers could learn a thing or two from the way athletes and football clubs treat their fans, according to Debbie Vavangas, global garage lead and VP, IBM.

An illustrious set of panellists including Diageo, IBM and Activision Blizzard at the 'The Innovation Game'

An illustrious set of panellists including Audi, Diageo, Activision Blizzard and Liverpool FC at 'The Innovation Game'

Speaking yesterday at The Drum and IBM’s The Innovation Game interactive event, which saw a panel of marketers and senior marketers in the audience explore the ties between sports and marketing, Vavangas said she hoped brands could create a similar kind of loyalty as that between a Premier League football club and one of its most die hard fans.

“Being a true fan is something you feel instinctually rather than something you think about, and every brand should be trying to tap into that feeling,” she explained. “I was at the Dream Force conference last week, and even though it’s an IT platform, there were people queuing for an hour to buy its merchandise.

“It shows that same kind of feverish passion is possible outside of sports too; there isn’t a brand out there that doesn’t want to re-create the kind of loyalty, and sense of belonging, that comes with sports.”

It's something Audi has tried to achieve with its Audi Presents programme, which gives loyal customers rewards such as tickets to gigs and football matches. The German car brand's head of digital Anthony Roberts said it has had an impact, even if it could have been bigger.

"We're always looking at ways to cultivate fans and generate loyalty. We want to make sure customers become fans, as the car industry is fickle so you need them, really," he explained. "The Audi Presents programme has been successful, but it's on such a small scale. Scaling something like that up to a broader customer is what's hard to do."

Having an authentic voice

But creating that kind of loyalty is only possible if you talk to consumers in the right way, according to Liverpool Football Club’s senior vice-president of digital media and marketing Drew Crisp, who spoke of the challenges of avoiding corporate speak when communicating with the club’s fans.

“Liverpool FC is a religion to our fans and they are very passionate. They look at their connection with the club almost as brand ownership,” he revealed. “For the fans, yes, the club has owners, but they are seen more as custodians and it’s the fans who really own the club.

“It means we have to be very careful about what we say, and can’t be completely honest. To achieve a big level of fandom, you almost have to do the reverse of brand belonging and always make it clear the fans have a real stake in what you represent.”

Currently sitting on top of the Premier League table and also the reigning champions of Europe, Liverpool FC is a club with an upward trajectory under manager Jurgen Klopp, following years of rebuilding.

Integrating technology into sports marketing

Yet despite this on-field success, Crisp admitted the club still has a long way to go when it comes to becoming more tech literate.

“We’re at the cutting edge when it comes to using data to help the players on the pitch and stuff like learning about nutrition so they run faster. But as much I’d love to take that kind of data system and apply it to our marketing, it’s not really happening. The on-field success and the marketing success have to be separate."

Crisp added: “We need to catch up. Something like 40-50% of our fans read their mobile phone while at games and that’s a huge opportunity to interact with them. We’re behind the times, and that needs to change.”

One company that is very much in touch with using technology to communicate with its consumers is Activision Blizzard, the gaming giant responsible for the hugely successful Call of Duty video game series and one of the driver's behind making eSports a mainstream concept. The company’s global head of sales Greg Carroll spoke about how sport sponsorship sometimes works better in a gaming environment.

“Our data shows that this audience is much more likely to engage with brand sponsorship in e-sports than traditional sports,” he advised.

If there’s a glitch or a problem with a new Call of Duty game, fans express their anger within seconds on social media. And Carroll said this is the kind of relationship is something brands from other industries should also strive for. “No group of people on earth will tell you messed up quicker than gamers, believe me,” he added. “But this is a good thing as it means the bar for excellence is set real high. That back and forth relationship, where you can really say what you feel, is key if you’re to turn a consumer into a loyal fan.”

Backing the right horse

However, Tayna Joseph, director of campaigns at Nationwide, said her previous experience working at Sport England and masterminding the successful ‘This Girl Can’ campaign taught her that brand sponsorship within the sports space can also be a risky business.

“I remember we did a partnership with a brand and people got very angry,” she recalled. “We were incredibly naïve. You definitely have to be cautious about it or you can look inauthentic.”

Joseph said brands looking to succeed in the sports space should also be careful about the kind of language they use in order to be successful. “With ‘This Girl Can’, we were acutely aware that women were put off by words like ‘sport’ and ‘gym’ – they saw them as negatives. So we found a way to talk about sport differently and show it could be a positive and empowering.”

Ultimately any brands looking to move into the sporting arena need to have a clear understanding of the space they’re entering or it could cause more damage than good. There must be a clear alignment of values, according to Diageo’s senior sponsorship manager Kate Moore, something she says Guinness' longstanding sponsorship of rugby has achieved.

She concluded: “Whenever we do something in the sport space, we try to make sure we tap into the culture of attention and make it positive. The most important thing when going into the sport environment is to move to a place of active engagement and not just shoe-horn your brand or tech into that environment. It has to be natural."

Tariq Khan, VP of customer experience at Coty

We're definitely looking to position ourselves more in the sporting environment, especially around things like eSports and Formula E, where it's a lot more interactive. I'm a great fan of the Miami Heat team and their app, which is a mobile companion when you enter the stadium. It tells you where the queues are and helps you navigate the space properly. They make more revenues on their mobile app than all the other NBA teams' apps combined; that for me shows just how much sport is innovating, and it's something we can all learn from.

Arjoon Bose, marketing head at General Mills

"We did a campaign with Nature Valley around Wimbledon and it was all about democratising tennis and making it more acceptable. We wanted to play a meaningful role in the sport and position ourselves as an enabler of people getting involved with tennis. It didn't matter if you were the British no 1 or just the champion of your local tennis club, the campaign was just about getting people active. We wanted to put a protein bar in every player's hand and that's what ended up happening. It showed us how powerful sport can be in helping build positivity around a brand."

Anand Naryanan, head of digital marketing and communications at Panasonic UK

Trying too hard and forcing sports fans into your brand will make things fall apart. We try to do the opposite with our Olympics partnership, which has been going for 31 years now. Our campaign is built around the fans and them pushing the athletes to go that little bit extra, but in a very natural ways. Involving the fans if you're going to move into sports sponsorship is so important, but it has to come from a place of truth.

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