All you need is love... and hate
A view from Ben Mitchell

All you need is love... and hate

Sports brands thrive on divided loyalties and rivalries - something which consumer brands should be willing to learn from, argues Red Brick Road's head of strategy.

So many sports clubs, are, of course, major brands in their own right.

But they are arguably more experienced than any major brand, and many certainly command more passion from their followers than any brands out there.

So Red Brick Road wanted to understand what we could learn from the world of sports. We hosted a discussion between broadcaster Gabby Logan and Crystal Palace Football Club chairman Steve Parish to talk about the nature of sports fans, revealing some powerful truths that brands would do well to heed.

Without an enemy, you’re nothing

The Premier League – like the world of brands – is fuelled by story-telling in the media, and narrative arcs… the waning leaders, the new kids on the block, the "one-game-away-from-a-turnarounds"….

Being an underdog – whether a challenger brand or a football club – elicits feelings that people can sympathise with.

"When Palace went to the cup final for only the second time in history, you could tell it was an amazing celebration of a lifelong support of an underdog," says Parish of his team’s FA Cup final match in 2016 against Manchester United.

Gabby Logan seconded that: "With Leicester City [winning the Premier League in 2016], opposition fans almost didn’t care about conceding points as they were going to do something special."

But being hated creates a defensive and tribal passion – when a football club is hated by another football tribe, that means "you’ve arrived", you’re in the big league. Without that tension, you haven’t made it.

Tribalism is buried deep within us and loves the excuse to come out.

Fans want to feel proud, defensive, antagonistic even. They want something to fight for and fight back against.

The most powerful brands all polarise… Nike vs Adidas, Aldi vs Lidl, Marmite…

Yet brands try to be everyone’s friend, to offend no-one. This feels counter to what drives human passion.
Look at certain telco brands: they have lost the fire in their bellies. Remember when your choice of network provider was a revealing insight into who you were?

Maybe a brand has made it when it has their trolls? When people can’t wait to jump on your latest TV ad and take it down? 

When you’ve got enemies, you need great friends

The best type of football fan sees it as a lifelong commitment; a badge of honour.

And so it goes with the most followed brands too.  It all stems from other-worldly attraction, a mystique, a desire to be a part of their world.

"I fell in love with those incredible beings on the pitch," says Parish, describing his early love for Crystal Palace.

This commitment needs maintaining. Fans and followers are demanding.

As Parish described: " "With true fans, it's a love affair." They need love, they need attention and they will repay you with passion.  

Keep them happy, feed their enthusiasm, listen to them and respond.

If you lose the fans, you lose the brand, and with it the passion on which new followings and fandom can be built.

Nothing moves a fan more than a peak of emotion.

Like football clubs, brands need a perpetual, consistent narrative to feed their following.

As Logan says: "Technology has changed the way we consume football. But still a huge appetite for seeing more than the goals."

Parish supports this: "It’s got such a long tail now, beyond the two 45 minutes. On Match of the Day, you get two minutes of the game and a minute of the characters and personalities of the who’s playing."

But that narrative has to be filled with the peaks that will be remembered and cherished. It’s not just about the daily grind of the Premier League fixtures – or a media plan – it’s that big, live, spine-tingling moment that everyone remembers. The stand-out successes, the memorable events.

They make you feel alive, connected and like you belong in the world.

Brands need to find their live event, their live moment.

Friendship stems from trust and intimacy

Ferrari’s roller coaster ride to the top came from a burning desire from Enzo Ferrari – a dream, an ambition and a sense of purpose.

That passion drives the brand – and the famous Tifosi – to this day. This is replicated by Parish, a Ferrari fan: "Brands born out of love are the ones who I’m drawn to".

They believe in their leaders values, passion and ambition.

Crystal Palace has thrived not least from being guided by a lifelong fan who sees the club as an inheritance to nurture, not a company to profit from.

"I’m a custodian of the club, not the owner", Parish insists.

If you want real friendship from customers, they have to buy into your brand through every facet of what you do.

And they need to get close to you, to get to know you properly.

Football clubs’ fan base was traditionally drawn from the local population…Now, for many clubs, their fanbase is global. Part of the secret is accessibility. Social media, and widespread media coverage, has given fans an insight into their club and players never previously imaginable.

Intimate is the new local. Brands need to give their fans intimate access in order to transcend their origins and deepen the passion.

This doesn’t mean brands need expose their metaphorical private parts. Even a sneak peek into the rarefied world of Gucci, for example, would be enough to feed the enthusiasm of many a luxury brand fan.

So let’s start making friends, and pick up a few enemies on the way.

Ben Mitchell is head of strategy at Red Brick Road