Passion power: the 10 essential rules of fan engagement
A view from Suzy Bashford

Passion power: the 10 essential rules of fan engagement

In 2012, brands tapped into people's passions around the London Olympics. The 2016 Games will hold yet more opportunities, as well as potential pitfalls. How can you win the race to drive conversation and become part of a cultural moment, asks Suzy Bashford.

Passion is instinctive, uncontrollable, intuitive, unpredictable, momentary and spontaneous. A fist pump. A tear rolling down a cheek. A swearword slipping out. The experience is visceral, felt strongly in wrenching guts or racing pulses.

Passion is all about emotion. Far from rational, it comes from the heart, not the head. Yet marketers appear to have lost touch with this, blinded by commercial considerations, distracted by data and an obsession with finding a rational, failsafe formula for the dispassionately coined (and overused) ‘passion-point marketing’. Nonetheless, as Conor McNicholas, former editor of NME and Top Gear magazines and now CEO of content agency AllTogetherNow, warns: "With passion comes risk."

Brands need to learn to embrace financial and reputational risk

In his role at NME, predicting and influ­encing trends in musical culture, McNicholas found that championing a new sound and becoming associated with the latest craze required constant risk-taking with big-budget productions and front covers; both of which could have a significant impact on sales. Pursuing passion, he says, takes a lot of "blood, sweat and tears".

These come with the territory; if they don’t, something is amiss. McNicholas contends that marketers lack bravery when tapping into passions. They claim they want to, "but at zero risk, eventu­ally diluting the impact of their message so much that the project falls flat". His advice? "Brands need to learn to embrace financial and reputational risk if they really want to ignite and become part of that passion – spotting unfulfilled potential and opening up and engaging with people on their own terms."

This summer’s Olympics, hosted by one of the world’s most exuberant, passionate countries, Brazil, will surely provide plenty of inspiration as to how to harness consumer excitement and fan devotion to make them part of the fabric of a cultural event. You can bet that the successful brand players will not be those that simply plaster logos over the venues or dole out truckloads of branded merchandise.

The rules of fan engagement have changed and require a more sophisticated, genuine touch, beyond the hygiene factors of understanding your audience and picking an appropriate passion to get them hot under the collar. Those things are a given; you should have them covered long before you even start thinking of how your brand is going to become part of the conversation. So, what are these new rules of engagement?

Solve a problem, enhance an experience, or go home

The best examples are often the simplest – such as EE providing Glastonbury-goers with mobile charging points, or O2 offering customers gig tickets 48 hours before they go on general release.

Don’t try too hard – there is nothing worse than forced passion

Passion feels natural. As a result, if a brand comes in all guns blazing determined to ‘prove’ its passion, it is likely to be viewed with suspicion. As Kevin Chesters, chief strategy officer at Ogilvy & Mather London, says: "Don’t force it, just share a bit of yourself and hope that the right people, [those] you want to attract, love you for it."

He cites one of the agency’s campaigns, BT Sport’s ‘Pub signs’, to support its Champions League coverage – featuring specially designed, football-themed, hand-painted pub signs – as a good example. The understated campaign reflected the fans’ love of football folklore, wordplay and intrigue, and combined these with modern references and humour.

If you’re not passionate about the property, piggyback someone who is

It may be that the ‘passion point’ your brand has decided on doesn’t light your fire. McNicholas has seen this before, to the clear detriment of the tie-up. He recalls one situation where creative was signed off by a marketer who didn’t share his audience’s passion, but held responsibility for the brand.

"[The marketer] killed every campaign – got it over-analysed and rewritten," says McNicholas. "The outcome? The blandest possible content." If you can’t empathise your way to understanding, defer to people who can. "Even better," he adds, "hand it over to your audience. Give them a platform for their passion and move away from a top-down mentality."

But passion points chosen as the marketing director is a fan can also be doomed. "Many brands have been caught out here," says Jo Arden, head of strategy at creative agency 23red. "Make sure your brands can genuinely stand behind something, because it is too easy for consumers to find out if they don’t."

The devil is in the detail, not grand gestures

Ben Kay, former England rugby player and co-founder of agency Pablo, which works with Carlsberg, Adidas and Vodafone, warns: "Sports-related marketing has to come across as genuine… consumers, especially fans, can smell inauthenticity a mile off."

He cites Adidas’ sponsorship of the British & Irish Lions in 2013 (pictured, opposite) as an example of how players-turned-marketers can add value through deep understanding. Rather than moody imagery of players set against stormy skies, Kay pushed to identify "a unique and truthful" insight. 

"It’s usually the small details that make the difference to becoming successful," he says. "The obvious chest-thumping passion should be a given in sport. It is the passion at every microscopic level that differentiates the winners and losers."

A small detail that resonated with Kay was the "dichotomy of divulging all my line-out secrets to my new teammate", who just weeks earlier had been a rival. "Yet I knew we all had to invest 100% in the Lions’ cause to stand any chance," he says. This led to the ‘Stand together’ positioning, which quickly entered the rugby vernacular. Why? "Utter authenticity," says Kay.

Make the fans the focus – the stars of the show

This is not about your brand – or even the passion, really. Engaging fans is increasingly about answering the consumer question "What’s in it for me?" This is especially true of the "passion tribes" online, according to Tumblr EMEA sales director Michael Pennington, and painfully apposite for the millennial, and younger, generations, who are used to the cult of ‘celebrity me’.

They are accustomed to social media "putting them front and centre of the campaign", he says. Consequently, they expect brands to give them something tangible (content, physical goods, access or something else) that will "enrich their lives and inspire them".

Seeing their star from afar is rarely enough – they want to see themselves in the thick of the event, too, and bask in the reflected glory of their involvement.

Irn-Bru did this while supporting the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games. Its Slo-Mo Supporters Booth travelled the country shooting footage of Scotland fans for YouTube, and made the biggest supporters the faces of its billboard campaign.

"Irn-Bru’s campaign was a one-off, but was hugely relevant and played on the home-crowd pride. Its consumers loved the brand involvement," says Jess Hargreaves, joint managing director of experiential agency Pretty Green and board member of the Institute of Promotional Marketing.

Strike instantly, at the height of passion

If you wait to tweet congratulations for the winning goalscorer or Oscar-winner, you’ve missed the moment. Yet, according to Antoine de Kermel, managing director EMEA at TVTY, an adtech firm that specialises in ‘moment marketing’, only 11% of brands react in under five minutes.

"In these vital minutes, the passion is lost," he says. "Marketing to a consumer at the wrong time is not only a wasteful use of marketing spend, it can have a negative impact on brand perception." That’s why TVTY prioritised ‘moment marketing’ for the O2 Rugby World Cup #WearTheRose social campaign. At key points, such as when a try was scored, O2’s social-media spend was boosted within 200 milliseconds to capture the interest of engaged fans.

"We built dynamic scenarios that automatically reacted in realtime to certain triggers [during the game]," says Simon Valcarcel, creative and media lead at O2. "We instantly promoted relevant messaging across social media and associated our campaign with [the] emotional moments that matter most to fans."

One oversized T-shirt does not fit all

It’s important to allow for the fact that not all consumers will be able to get involved to the same degree. Jonathan Gatward, Britvic’s global adult category and capability director, learned this lesson from the brand’s ‘Transform your patch’ initiative in 2012, designed to help local communities regenerate wasteland into useful spaces.

"It’s important to create mechanisms to allow for different levels of engagement, from passive support to active, or acting as an advocate," he says. Consumers could register support by buying products or, to do more, going online to vote or volunteer.

This learning can be applied across borders. As Misha Sher, MediaCom’s head of sport EMEA, explains, it’s imperative to adapt to each market. Take a football match: while there may be millions of fans all over the world watching, their needs may be very different.

"Brazilians are far more likely than [those] in the US and China to use social media, and they prefer Facebook," he says. "US fans, on the other hand, are much more likely to use YouTube. Both Americans and Brazilians crave content that brings them closer to the emotion of the game, whereas Chinese fans are more interested in statistics and strategy."

One-off passion is not enough: share the love

According to Deloitte UK chief marketing officer Annabel Rake, you cannot choose one sponsorship or partnership and expect it to align with all your brand’s strategic goals, or satisfy your entire audience.

"To derive real value, you have to learn to make them work collaboratively," she says. "With a competitive market encouraging increasingly innovative activation strategies, this is how you achieve greater impact." 

Deloitte, for example, backs both Ride Across Britain and the Paralympic Association. Rake argues that this approach has been much more effective than a single-property strategy because it "amplifies
understanding of our broader purpose".

Tell a good story…

One of the best ways to tap into a passion is to tell the stories behind it with all the emotion you can communicate. Procter & Gamble did this with its ‘Thank you mum’ campaign in 2012, which hit home by illustrating the trials and tribulations – for athletes as well as their families – of participating in high-level sport.

Dell took on a similar facilitator role at the Commonwealth Games, broadcasting athletes’ stories via social platforms and video, and creating experiential events to champion the sporting heroes.

"Let your brand live the passion and use that as your marketing collateral," says Dell UK marketing director Iren Banfield. She adds that it enhances the story if you can get employees to create their own narratives relating to it, "be it running a marathon or taking part in a gaming convention".

…but in the throes of passion, don’t lose your head

While passion is all about emotion, risk and spontaneity, these are the last characteristics marketers need when negotiating the sponsorship contract. Take a long, dispassionate look at the contract before 

you agree to anything. This is where many brands come unstuck.

Malph Minns, managing director of Strive Sponsorship, who helped set up the commercial partnership programme at cycling’s Team Sky, where he worked for five years, has plenty of practical tips. 

"Look at who is already operating in that space," he advises. "Build an understanding of costs of entry and activation. Evaluate the rightsholder's ability to support delivery of your objectives. Be clear on the key criteria that should be satisfied."

Dave Roberts, deputy managing director of M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment, and director Neil Hopkins, both agree. "Entering partnership negotiations with a clear understanding of what rights you will need (in order) to add strategically relevant value is critical. Once the contract is signed, it's almost impossible to retrospectively add rights."

In the cluttered sponsorship space, many agencies attempt to have a foot in both camps; offering brands consultation, but also representing rightsholders. That's why, say Roberts and Hopkins, the best thing to do is access independent, expert counsel.

"One common reason sponsorships fail is an over-investment in upfront rights, leaving insufficient budget for amplification and exploitation," they say. "It's important to remember that many rightsholders are playing catch-up; for decades they've been driven by commercial imperatives rather than solid, consumer-led marketing strategy. Consequently, smart brands with smart marketers have much to offer - way more than just fat cheque books."

Consequently, smart brands with smart marketers have much to offer – way more than just fat cheque books."