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Creativity Brand Strategy Sports Marketing

Club brands are sacred for sports fans. How can designers avoid a negative response?

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

July 19, 2022 | 10 min read

Each week, we ask agency experts from across the world and the ad business for their take on a tough question facing the industry, from topical concerns to perennial pain points. This week, we consider how designers can navigate a tough crowd for our Sports Marketing Deep Dive.

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Unveiling a new sports brand can be a dicey moment for agencies. How can they pre-empt a negative response? / The Drum

Most designers and agency creatives would kill to have an audience that actually cares about the minutiae of their work.

Few get that privilege. And the designers who take on a rebranding or redesigning gig for sports brands may end up regretting that desire – because nobody cares quite as much about a new kit, badge or typographic element as a lifelong fan.

So, given the potential for a negative reaction from your intended audience, how should agencies approach these delicate briefs?

How do you solve a problem like... designing for passionate sports fans?

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Rodney Abbot, senior partner, design, Lippincott

Refreshing a brand identity is a complex and delicate operation in the best of times. Add a critical audience who loves the brand just the way it is, and the risk-to-reward ratio grows exponentially. The key to success is to strip away any noise and home in on the core brand meaning. What’s at the heart of the brand’s expression that elicits such passion? If you go to the source and present that in a way that’s fresh but respects the brand’s heritage, you’ll find acceptance, and maybe even love.

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Guy Sexty, head of art, Wunderman Thompson

Sports fans are rabid, obsessive and opinionated. They also rarely agree. Good luck finding two fans aligning on the starting lineup for Saturday’s match, let alone the sleeve detailing on the latest kit. You’re never going to please them all.

So instead of trying to, designers should stick to a vision and create with the values of the club in mind. Immerse in the heritage and look to incorporate classic details with a new twist. Make the work meaningful. And just accept that some people will love it and some (hopefully a minority) will not.

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Cierra Moore, strategy director, Butler, Shine, Stern & Partners

To minimize the risk of sports fans rejecting new design elements, sports clubs must embrace a team spirit with their fanbase when creating new design elements. Teams must solicit, value and implement fan design feedback. No team should change design (look and feel) without soliciting the input of their fanbase.

Long after the whistle blows and the season ends, it is the fan that continues to rep (and wear) the brand. Their beloved sports club is part of their personal identity.

Including fans in the evolution of the team’s identity is key to minimizing rejection and blowback from passionate fans.

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Viv Greywoode, head of design, Stink Studios London

In my experience, fans are just as keen to see their beloved clubs’ new visuals succeed and take off. Criticisms come when designers haven’t listened or understood what the club, the team and the region mean to its supporters.

In sports, this means tapping into the stakeholders, season ticket holders, players, fan forums and official groups as early as possible in the research phase, and bringing them along on the journey. One of the beautiful things about fans is that they usually have strong bullshit detectors and will let you know what they think. We should be making the most of this, not worried about it.

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Tom Lindo, strategy director, FCB Inferno

The first job is always to tighten the brief. We use a proprietary process called Definitive Design to codify, refine and evaluate all of the brand’s assets and perceived associations, from visual marks and motifs to typography and colors used. The process allows us to select which areas of design we can evolve and identify which elements to leave as they are.

This gives the designers the confidence and clarity they need so that any redesign can be done with the respect that the club and fans deserve.

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Sherine Kazim, head of design, Siberia

If you’re looking to design a product for someone as passionate as a sports fan, you must get them in the game. Start with qualitative methods (one-to-ones, not focus groups, at the start), involve the fans at every step of the process and then validate with quant. That’s our human-centered, sure-fire way to co-create something they want, need and love every bit as much as that ol’ jersey they just can’t quit.

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Elliot Vredenburg, design director, Mother Design

People don’t like change. For this reason, it’s important to engage fans early in the process, and treat them as stakeholders just as important as the owners and marketing managers. Sports team identities derive meaning from two things: tradition and locality. This means sticking to the past as inspiration for the future and not getting caught up in broadly-accepted conventions or trends (see: clubs in the US’s Major League Soccer being renamed as football clubs). When it’s something you’re familiar with, it’s always easier to say no than it is to say yes. What’s most hard to argue with is history.

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Liron Reznik, executive strategy director, head of consumer strategy and head of brand strategy, Frog Design

Designing for a passionate sports fan means designing an icon that digs deep into authentic heritage while taking into account The New Trifecta of macro forces guiding new brand development and design – new consumers (and new expectations they possess), new technologies (disruptive, immersive and participatory) and new types of communities that thrive in the omniverse. To create a new design and experience system that moves with fandom, provide an authentic way for fans to ‘own it’ and feel a deeper sense of emotional ownership of the club.

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Garrett Garcia, president, PPK

After five years as AOR for a Tampa sports team, PPK has plenty of first-hand experience. First and foremost, any shop or agency that takes on a pro sports club absolutely has to be raving fans of the team. Period. Unless you’re creating content from a place of true fandom before anything else, you won’t be successful. Second, don’t over-design. Find ways to enhance, improve and evolve, but always stay true to the sacred badge(s) of the club at all times. Finally, following fashion trends, specifically color palettes and patterns, helps add immediate interest to otherwise traditional team designs.

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Simon Kearney, strategy and insights director, Wolff Olins

It’s not unlike the challenge we faced when creating the London 2012 logo, which is coming up to its 10-year anniversary. Then we knew it had to be about participation.

It’s crucial to engage fans at every part of the process, but beyond that start by digging into their history. Have they traditionally been frontrunners or underdogs? What style of play are they known for? Which players or stories have come to define the franchise and how are they remembered? Look through the archives to see how color and iconography have played a role across this history.

These are the principles that fans attach themselves to most – the unique moments, milestones and stories that make their team’s journey (and any good expression of it) unique and meaningful.

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Will Thacker, executive creative director, 20something

We faced this challenge when tasked with the reveal of Chelsea’s 2021/2022 home kit. We had to inject a new energy, tone and edge into the club’s long-standing creative platform It’s A Chelsea Thing, while being considerate to the heritage of the brand and not excluding long-standing fans.

We presented the kit in a new way, taking iconic historical moments and bringing them up to date to give them a new twist. We layered that with Easter eggs that only true fans would spot, and spent so much time getting deep into the culture and looking for interesting crossovers with fashion, music and lifestyle to create a richer experience for new and old fans alike. You have to understand where they are, their mindset, and get deep into the culture. They will spot inauthenticity a mile off and have absolutely no hesitation in destroying you in the comments.

Want to join in with our weekly discussions? Email me at sam.bradley@thedrum.com.

Creativity Brand Strategy Sports Marketing

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