MARKET RESEARCH: WHAT WEST HAM CAN TEACH CLIENTS ABOUT BRAND LOYALTY - Brand managers take note - the Beautiful Game and its fans may teach you a thing or two about engendering and rewarding the loyalty of your customers, Richard Cook says

Even before Fever Pitch gave them a voice, even before the renaissance of lad culture gave them all a rallying point, there was nothing phony, nothing forced about admen’s relationship with football. They loved it.

Even before Fever Pitch gave them a voice, even before the

renaissance of lad culture gave them all a rallying point, there was

nothing phony, nothing forced about admen’s relationship with football.

They loved it.

Football’s influence on their lives was profound: its influence on their

professional skills rather less so, restricted to tortured analogies

that were designed to capture the attention of an easily bored


’One of the best lessons I learned in advertising was football-related,’

Chris Forrest, the planning consultant and founder of Forrest

Associates, says, ’when Dave Waters told me that if you managed to get a

football analogy into your presentation you were halfway there. And for

years we used to do this presentation about how planners were like

midfielders and creatives were like strikers - the pressure was on the

creatives to put the ball away but they depended on good crosses from

the planners, that sort of thing.’

But all that might be about to change. It seems there could be more

important lessons to be learned from football than the advantages of

your wing-backs maintaining width across the field, or of your number

nine making his darting breaks down the proper channels.

At least, that’s the message coming from the dugout at Discovery

Research, where two planners - Ken Parker and Trish Stuart - have

examined closely the relationship between football clubs and their fans,

their loyalty and, most importantly, gone on to suggest ways other

product areas can learn from football’s success.

The result of their considerable endeavours was the paper delivered at

this year’s Market Research Society conference, and entitled - with no

apparent sense of irony - the West Ham Syndrome.

Parker and Stuart did far more than just read the sports pages of the

Sun and chat to their mates over a pint to establish the depth of a

relationship between fans and their teams. Instead, they studied

quantitative and qualitative studies conducted by the clubs themselves,

and examined research projects carried out by some of the sponsors of

those clubs. Discovery also commissioned six group discussions, ten

in-depth interviews and an omnibus research project conducted among a

total of 2,000 adults across the UK at the end of last year.

What all this research helped pin-point is just how devoted the adult

population is to our national sport.

Exactly half of those surveyed claimed to have some interest in football

- two-thirds of men claimed an interest, against one-third of women. As

far as the advertisers that have embraced football are concerned,

interest is higher among younger than older adults, while 52 per cent of

AB adults claimed an interest against just 42 per cent of DEs.

When the researchers asked about loyalty to a particular team the

overall interest figure dropped to around 40 per cent, but there is

little doubt how ingrained that support really is.

According to the paper, 58 per cent of males had made a commitment to

their team by the age of 11. More than half of children whose parents

supported a team went on to support the same one, while a third of all

fans still follow their local side. Those, that is, who haven’t already

switched to Manchester United.

’Manchester United fans take a lot of jibes about coming from all over

the world and so on, but more than 90 per cent of fans come from within

20 miles of Old Trafford,’ the Publicis planning director, Dan

O’Donaghue, says.

’The most fanatical fans are those with cultural links to the club.’

However, there is one vital difference between the fans’ relationship

with their football teams and consumers with their favourite brands. Our

choice of soap powder, for example, is governed by such factors as the

ads for it, whether it’s any good, the price, the packaging and so on.

And if we find one that’s better, we change our allegiance. We don’t

know what the best soap powder is, but we do know that 14 football teams

fared better than West Ham last season, because West Ham finished 15th

in the Carling Premier League table. But Hammers fans would never dream

of ditching their claret-and-blue strips or cancelling their season

tickets to Upton Park to plump for Manchester United. Neither would

Chelsea supporters.

’I think we have the most loyal fans in the Premiership,’ says Chelsea’s

commercial manager, Carol Phaier. ’Our supporters are unbelievable and,

as people say, a husband can change a wife, a wife can change her

husband, but you never change your football team.’

Phaier’s beliefs are borne out by the West Ham Syndrome’s findings: ’In

the qualitative research, attempts were made to see what needed to

happen before brand switching would be considered. In most cases,

nothing could be contemplated that could act as a trigger. Relegation

would be hard to swallow. Being beaten by Brighton would be a big

humiliation. Falling to the GM Vauxhall Conference would be extremely

tough. Yet none of these seemed to be sufficiently strong to erode brand


For years, marketing to your supporters meant offering onions with the

hot dogs and opening a team shop. Now football clubs have finally

started to reward their fans and exploit this brand loyalty properly.

And, while there’s no doubting the faithfulness of fans through the lean

years, there’s no doubt that success on the pitch keeps the money

rolling in. Manchester United, with its massive worldwide support, and

cosmopolitan London clubs, such as Arsenal and Chelsea, have led the way

out of the marketing wilderness.

A three-star hotel is in the final stages of construction at Chelsea’s

Stamford Bridge ground. When it is completed, weekend packages that

include a room and a ticket to the game will be a strong selling point

for Chelsea, whose marketing efforts were strengthened by the club’s FA

Cup success last season.

’Even before we won the FA Cup, we didn’t have to advertise the club and

managed to get lots of newspaper exposure for our sponsors - Coors until

last season and now Autoglass,’ Phaier says. ’Winning the Cup Final

couldn’t have come at a better time.

We were committed to opening our megastore in July, offering 1,000

square feet of shopping space over two floors, and having ’FA Cup

winners’ emblazoned on the shirts helped give everyone a lift and has

continued to drive sales.’

One immediate consequence of Chelsea’s success is in the star attraction

photo-opportunity available in the club shop. ’They have the FA Cup in

the megastore and you can be photographed lifting the cup with the rest

of the team superimposed around you,’ Chelsea fan and New PHD creative

communications director, Jon Wilkins, laughs. ’It costs pounds 25 for a

photo and I’ve been about three times to have it taken and there’s been

queues every time - and that’s not just on match days, I’ve been in the

middle of the afternoon on weekdays.’

It might seem like a fun marketing tool but at pounds 25 a throw that

sort of initiative might make close to pounds 500,000 over the year. And

that’s not all - fans are tuning in to Chelsea radio - the match-day

service provided by Planet 24 on the club’s behalf. There’s also a

Chelsea Website, complete with online shop.

’Chelsea’s merchandise efforts are probably the second biggest in the

country now behind Manchester United,’ agrees the FourFourTwo acting

editor, Christian Smyth. ’The work done by all the clubs has made it a

lot easier for fans to feel an affinity with their club, so that win

lose or draw they stick with that club, despite the fact that so many

fans are watching on TV and not necessarily out supporting their local


So what can marketers learn from football clubs and their diehard fans,

given the in-built advantages that the clubs enjoy over most brands?

’I think the big difference is passion,’ Publicis’s O’Donaghue says.

’Many people in marketing lack passion in their product, and passion’s

the one thing that is always there in football.’

According to the report’s authors, this passion can have disastrous

consequences for the brands trying to tap into it - many Arsenal fans,

apparently, still refuse to drink Holsten Pils because Holsten was once

the shirt sponsor of the Gunners’ north London rival, Tottenham


Parker and Stuart’s report concedes: ’It is unrealistic to believe

another product sector could elevate itself to a position whereby it

could become a topic of conversation on such a frequent basis or with

such passion as football, so this puts all other sectors at a potential


But the pair believe there are some powerful lessons to be learned,

especially in sectors such as cars and baby products, which excite

emotional reactions from consumers. With mainstream cars choice of

brands is wide, differences tend to be relatively minor, and promiscuity

tends to be rife, they explain.

Nevertheless, some brands have managed to create a core loyal


BMW benefits from high levels of repeat purchase, and some people will

only buy Ford cars. Parker and Stuart interviewed a Manchester City

supporter who would buy only light blue Fords.

This passion for cars is similar to the passion for football - car

buyers will be blind to many of the car’s faults. Owners will defend

their cars beyond reason and their desired repeat purchase is high -

just like supporting a team.

Or, to take another example in a different sector, the report makes the

point that Gillette’s ’best a man can get’ campaign made use of the same

sort of loyalty that football engenders. Just as a child’s choice of

which club to support tended to be the one his or her father supports,

so a son’s choice of razor and shaving foam tends to be the brand

supplied by his father.

The report concludes: ’The important thing is to ensure this brand is

considered as a longer-term bonding device by these two generations.

Gillette’s campaign was following this strategy.’

Perhaps it’s not too wise to struggle to find comparisons. Football

clubs are different from other brands, not least because of their


However, as Forrest points out: ’One of the most interesting things

about this research is that it can help to explain just why big brands

are able to bounce back from disappointments in much the same way clubs

come back from being relegated.’

There are also lessons to be learned from the way football clubs are

seeing the investment they make in their brands being rewarded. Chelsea

had signed Ruud Gullit, Dan Petrescu and Gianluca Vialli and had given

the go-ahead for construction of the new shop and hotel long before the

club had picked up its profit-making silverware.

’It’s a bit like Walkers crisps in that Chelsea had an average product

and made a good choice with their advertising, and have now invested in

a better product packed in silver foil and improved distribution,’ New

PHD’s Wilkins says. ’Products want to get on that circuit just like

football clubs.’

And for all the undoubted loyalty that football inspires, there’s no

doubt that actual attendance is given a helpful nudge by on-the-field

success, in the same way as other brands are by the quality of their


Manchester City’s average gates have declined by around 6,000 a match

since they last played in the top flight in 1996. The number of fans who

packed into Wembley for Brighton’s Cup Final appearance in 1983 had

slumped by the time the club succeeded in its valiant last-match attempt

against Hereford to stop its slide from third division to the GM

Vauxhall Conference last season. But then, as more than one brand

manager has been heard to say, it’s a funny old game.