Technology continues to drive change in how we consume and connect through sport. We are in an age characterised by “global fandom”. Fans no longer need to live in the same city or even country as their favourite sports team, and favourite sports / teams are increasingly less likely to be passed down from generation to generation like a precious family heirloom.
The growth of mobile, social networking and second screening around live sport continues to favour sports and sports teams with a clear fan engagement strategy. This is challenging, not least in a period where the reputation of sport in general is suffering.
This backdrop is increasingly forcing sports properties (whether governing bodies, leagues or clubs) to manage their brands more strategically. Good brands simplify our lives. They make our choices as customers much easier. This principle can/should also be applied to sport.
There are three rules that will become increasingly important to successful branding in sport: 1. reputation ≠ brand, 2. authenticity is everything and 3. value your brand.
If you are able to understand how these rules apply to your situation and successfully apply them, your organisation is likely to be even better prepared to deliver a brand that your customers value (whether they are fans, marketing partners, media partners etc).
- Reputation ≠ brand
It’s common to use the terms reputation and brand interchangeably. However, while they share many common attributes, they are different, and should be managed differently. Reputation is best defined as “the sum of perceptions held of your organisation’s actions by your key stakeholders” and is formed over a long period of time. This is distinct from your brand image, which is best described as “the sum of perceptions held by (actual or potential) customers about your products and services”.
The relationship between the two is not always clear. Nevertheless, recent research by Nielsen in the UK, found that 41% of people will shun a brand if they discover something they don’t like about how the company conducts itself, providing evidence that reputational problems are likely at some point to impact the appeal of your brand.
While brand building involves managing customer expectations, building your reputation involves managing the expectations of a raft of “key stakeholders”. The challenge in the latter case is to identify correctly who your key stakeholders are. While most sports organisations will tell you fans are a key stakeholder, it is surprising how few actually treat them accordingly.
The Seattle Sounders are a notable exception. The club doesn’t just claim that fans are a key stakeholder, they have institutionalised the relationship (principally through their “Alliance charter”) and engrained this ethos into their organisational culture. Of course, the Sounders reputation is not only built on its fan relationships but is also dependent upon successfully managing relationships with their investors, sponsors, the MLS, the city of Seattle, local media etc.
The very same fans who have a “stake” in the Sounders are also customers. To make them part with their hard-earned cash repeatedly, the brand must be positioned in a manner that is (functionally and emotionally) appealing as it is unlikely to be sufficiently attractive to the club’s fans that the organisation itself is perceived as having a good reputation. Judging by the strength of the Sounders matchday attendances (higher average home attendance than Liverpool FC), the club has built a strong brand in a relatively short space of time.
2. Authenticity is everything
I read a great quote recently: “whatever people are thinking and saying about your brand, that is your brand”. In the social media age, the truth is easy to find. Sports properties are subject to the same rule. They need to create credible and authentic brands manifested in clear and consistent (visual, verbal and behavioural) communication.
This is difficult enough without the clutter created by the ever-increasing number of branded messages out there (according to WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation), in 2013, there were around 30 million active trademarks globally with applications for trademark registration having doubled since 1995).
Coca-Cola’s recent announcement that it will roll-out its “one brand” marketing strategy globally is a reflection of how important they see the need to be clear in today’s democratised media environment. Summing up the approach, Coke CMO Marcos de Quinto was quoted as saying, “when you’re a big brand it is important to avoid erratic behaviour”.
In sport, the Big Bash League (BBL), a property developed by Cricket Australia to attract new audiences, is a great case study in building a strong brand. BBL is cricket, just not as we know it. It’s fast-paced, family-friendly and affordable. The average attendance of 28,346, achieved in only a few short years, puts it in the same ballpark as MLB (no pun intended).
3. Value your brand
A simple (albeit crude) test of brand equity is to estimate the premium you can command on the price of a regular, white t-shirt if you place your logo on that t-shirt. Successful brands add real value. Hence why robust brand valuation models (from the likes of InterBrand, BrandFinance and Millward Brown) have long been popular in marketing circles.
However, the sports industry, where some seriously valuable brands reside, has yet to fully embrace any kind of robust brand valuation model. While the actual value produced by these models can be debated (provocative Marketing Week columnist Mark Ritson has been doing exactly this), they are proven tools to help secure senior management support. They can also help to put into sharp perspective the likely (negative or positive) impact a decision might have on the value of your brand.
From marketing responsibility to organisational responsibility
The sports industry has long accepted the need to adopt consistent visual brand communication. However, the modern brand is more than a nice logo managed by a brand or design team.
We in the sports industry can’t be expected to deliver the same level of customer orientation as the Coca-Cola’s of this world. A focus on sporting priorities (winning on matchday, protecting the integrity of sport, delivering on development targets etc) can put limits on the promises we marketers can make to customers. Since brand management is about managing customer expectations, if you can’t deliver on a customer promise, don’t make it.
The promises we make to our customers through our brand communication and the resulting expectations we set in their minds must be delivered across all touchpoints, and not only an eye-catching visual identity. That means ensuring that your brand reflects what your customers want and expect (and how you can credibly meet those needs better than the increasing alternative forms of entertainment at their disposal) from how your front office greet them on the phone to how your back office pulls off exceptional matchday experiences. Any gaps between your promises and the customer experience will be laid bare in today’s social media age.
Brand is no longer a design challenge or even a marketing challenge. It is an organisation-wide challenge.
In the age of engagement, a nice logo is not enough.
About the author of this post:
David Fowler is a Chartered Marketer with more than 15 years’ experience in international sports marketing roles. You can follow David on twitter @davidgfowler or connect on LinkedIn at ch.linkedin.com/in/davidgfowler
All opinions are personal rather than professional.