The new rules of engagement for sports brands

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).

  1. 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.

sounders alliance charter1


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

All opinions are personal rather than professional.


6 thoughts on “The new rules of engagement for sports brands

  1. Yeh I totally agree with all this I have designed a system called Kosher that protects all intellectual property of the brand and connecting consumers. The system works for hardware, apparel right down to energy drinks. It’s cost effective and very simple to use….if you would like to know more let me know it bolts right in with what you have just distributed. Thanks Andrew


    1. Sebahattin Devecioglu, Turkey – New Trends of Sports Marketing
      The 8th International Conference in Physical Education, Sport and Physical Therapy
      From Theory to Practice 08-11-2013 Iaşi Romania
      Marketing is a complex function that is extremely important to the overall success of sport organizations. You probably have heard the term sport marketing in many contexts, and you might be wondering exactly what it means. That’s a good question because sport marketing is composed of several elements, and the term sport marketing frequently is used incorrectly Some corporate executives might describe sport marketing as selling goods and services to generate a profit. But sport marketing is more than selling (Blann &Armstrong 2007).
      The most important element of sports marketing is that it is entirely different than the traditional concept of marketing. The difference is that with sports, fans tend to develop strong relationships with their favorite teams and these teams hold a special place in their life . Another element that makes sports marketing unique from traditional marketing is that it is unpredictable, rapidly changing, and inconsistent (“The History,” 2011; Mullin et al., 2007).
      The concept of “sports marketing” is ambiguous in its meaning for both practitioners and academicians. Discussions about its application in the popular press and in many textbooks include categories ranging from tickets to spectator sports to sport-related wagers in legal gambling establishments (Shannon, 1999).
      The genesis of the term “sport marketing” can be attributed to a story in a 1978 issue of Advertising Age. In that venerable publication, sport marketing was characterized as “the activities of consumer and industrial product and service marketers who are increasingly using sport as a promotional vehicle” (Gray & McEvoy, 2005).
      The world of sport marketing is changing rapidly, and the way in which the marketing mix and sponsorship are deployed is subject to constant new media platforms, technologies and opportunities. Most recently, the hottest trend in sport marketing is utilizing the Internet (Blann &Armstrong 2007; Sutton, 2011). Whether by a team website, social media page, or blog, nearly all teams are using the Internet as part of their marketing strategy to build relationships (Loakimidis, 2010).
      In the study of modern marketing in today’s terminology, the most interesting, which is one of the new competitive tactics of new marketing strategy SAVE ( Solution, Access, Value, Education ) is explained by considering the conceptual perspective, focused on case studies applied to comparison of traditional marketing, and finally the applicability of the sports sector within the framework of a model is presented


      1- The History of Sport Marketing. (2011, April). Access : http://www.

      2-Mullin, B.J., Hardy, S., & Sutton, W.A. (2007) Sport Marketing (3rd ed.). Access:

      3-Sutton, W.A. (2011). Looking forward: A vision for sport marketing inquiry and
      scholarship. Sport Marketing Quarterly, 20(4), 242-248. Access:

      4-Loakimidis, M. (2010). Online marketing of professional sports clubs: Engaging fans on
      a new playing field. International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship,
      11(4), 271-282. Retrieved from

      5-Shannon, 1. R. (1999). Sports marketing: An examination of academic marketing publication. The Journal of Services Marketing, 13(6), 517-34.

      6- Gray, D., & McEvoy, C. (2005). Sport marketing strategies and tactics. Jn B. Parkhouse (Ed), The management of sport: Its foundation and application. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Jnc.

      7-Blann, F. Wayne, and Ketra L. Armstrong. “Sport marketing.” Contemporary Sport Management. Editors: Parks, Janet B.; Quaterman, Jerome (2007).


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