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Turning your consumers into a “modern tribe”: Why football clubs have the most loyal fans

“You'll never walk alone,” is a famous Liverpool chant. And it's due to this boasted and somewhat stereotypical loyalty that football fans have been the brunt of many studies. Let's face it, even when a team finds itself in the bottom rankings year after year, their fans still remain incredibly passionate about them. Wouldn't it be great if customers felt that way about a business?
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A dominant theme in the press is that fans of football brands are “modern tribes.” And according to Dominic Kitchin, author of ‘The Science of Buying‘, “we have an innate desire to belong to something.”

It is arguably the link with the brand itself which is more important than how well the club actually does. Given the declining revenue for media, the future health of football brands is increasingly linked to maintaining good relationships with their fans.

In ‘Brand Values and a Typology of Premier Football Fans‘, Dr Susan Bridgewater and Dr Stephanie Stary explained: “The understanding of why fans support could help to avoid conflict and loss of support such as that experienced by Wimbledon FC when they moved to Milton Keynes, or the backlash but continued attendance of matches by the majority of Manchester United fans.”

Identifying the elements of brand value in football clubs can provide a route map for employees to guide their behaviour towards fans. 

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But what, exactly, matters to fans?

Bridgewater and Stray believed that “being a fan fulfils the needs of sharing, feeling and belonging. It provides an acceptable outlet for exhibiting emotions and feelings. Sports psychologists point to the complex relationship between fans and professional sports brands by suggesting that being a fan is relatively low risk. When the team does well the fan shares success and considers his or herself to have played a role in this. When the team does not do well the fan tends to externalise this and blame the players, manager or other external agents.”

Many fans support sports clubs for the social and entertainment opportunities that these present. Loyalty merely becomes part of the pattern of behaviour.

Data collected during the 200-2001 season revealed: “Football brands are important to self-esteem, this emotional bond also translates into broader activities of support which include wearing team colours and talking to others about this involvement with the brand. The organisational values and corporate social responsibility of the clubs behind the football brands do matter to fans. This concern is not only at the effective management of the clubs, but at the broader role of the club in its community. Football brands also have a social component.

“These findings lend support for the view that these are high involvement and highly emotional brands as suggested by post-modern marketing. Yet team success does matter to a majority of fans as do other attributes of the brand such as the values by which it is underpinned. It is not only the ‘link’ but also the ‘thing’ that matters.”

Crucially, although we no longer live in isolated tribes it doesn’t mean we aren’t tribal. Today we create an identity for ourselves through the businesses we align ourselves with.

That is a key element that the big brands know that many SME’s miss. Nations created national flags to bring their tribe together and give them an identity. The flags of the big brands are their logos; helping fellow members of the tribe recognise each other and tell the world which tribe they belong to. No matter how advanced we are; who we give our allegiance to often tells our peers who we are and what we represent.

In that sense, branding is like a flag. It helps the consumer declare to the world what they stand for. When in business, think to yourself “What does my brand stand for?” Is it a clear message?

Kichin warns: “But remember; the brand is a promise to the consumer. It is a promise of an expected experience. ‘Buy us and you will receive this.’ By making a promise you attract customers, by keeping that promise you create loyal fans.

“Remember the ‘I’m a Mac and I’m a PC’ campaign from Apple in the mid 2000’s? The campaign was effective because the message was clear; use a PC and you are in for a major disappointment and frustration, use an Apple and begin creating your dream. What’s important is that Apple delivered on its brand promise and this is why we see so many Apple products today.

“It is imperative to make sure your business can deliver on its brand promise. For example, let’s take Samsung. In order to compete with Apple in the mobile phone industry, Samsung decided to deliver a ‘bigger’ phone. Samsung’s focus was on a particular feature of its product and for some months, it looked like this tactic had worked. However, those people that switched from Apple to Samsung began to head back to Apple. Why?  It was simple; the Samsung was too complex to work. Many Apple users who had switched found the Samsung operating system user-unfriendly and problematic.”
 
People returned to Apple in droves and Apple seized an opportunity; they saw the consumers’ demand for a bigger phone and then delivered it.

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Kitchin advises that in order to create a tribe, the customer experience must be at the core focus of any business. Branding helps us tell the world who the tribe is. It is like a national flag – or a football strip. But branding without delivery is simply a lie. People will become discouraged and look for something better. Delivering the brand experience will ensure your business stands out.

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About Author

Shané Schutte

Shané Schutte is the deputy editor of Real Business, with a particular specialism in employment and business law, human resources, information technology and sales/marketing.

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