Corporate behaviour is under more scrutiny than ever before. Consumers are gravitating to purpose-driven purchases, fuelled by political uncertainty and the growing scale of the environmental emergency. Investing in brands that advocate a cause or demonstrate a push against social injustices are quickly being recognised as an expression of identity. Where social media has morphed into a relentless marketing machine, the purchasing decisions that we make carry far more importance in defining who we are.
If aligning consumerism with positive social/ecological action now constitutes an expression of identity, those brands who are struggling to move from underneath the shadow of poor reputation could do worse than look at another relentless marketing machine- football.
Modern football is in a state of constant flux, as innovation has led to more sophisticated approaches, which themselves are being constantly adapted in order to find that crucial competitive edge. At first it was foreign players like Dennis Bergkamp or Eric Cantona who brought excitement, dynamism and flair, paving the way for other overseas greats and coaches like Jose Mourinho or Jurgen Klopp. These are the characters and innovators who have helped the Premier League product evolve and retain appeal to its ever-growing number of consumers.
Attaching such ‘commercial’ language to football is shaky ground, as fans still feel entitled to fight for the sanctity and purity of the game they adore, but reality dictates that they are all aware of the huge amounts of money that essentially determine the fortunes of every team across the division. Leicester winning the 2015-16 title was placed at 5000-1 for a reason. In truth, Richard Scudamore’s Premier League has morphed into a perfect brand, one that has seamlessly transitioned into this digital age through arguably the greatest marketing strategy that the sporting world has ever seen.
As brands attempt to forge more meaningful relationships with their consumers, Premier League clubs have been adopting a similar ‘purpose-driven’ strategy in a bid to appease ‘consumers’ who were rapidly beginning to lose interest amidst times of political and economic upheaval. Billionaire owners and a yearly jump in exorbitant wages and transfer fees are a world away from the average fan experience, and clubs were losing sight of the uniquely resilient bond that functions as a point of identity and pride for those passionate and foolhardy punters who suffer and celebrate through the season.
To rebuild that bond, clubs are tapping into the past to push a ‘hero narrative.’ Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard now occupy the managerial hot seat at Manchester United and Chelsea respectively, two of the most scrutinized clubs in the world and ones to which they are intrinsically and iconicly connected thanks to their deeds as players. Meanwhile at Arsenal, a club whose divided fanbase garnered more coverage than any other, legendary former players now occupy important coaching and administrative posts, with Freddy Ljungberg and Edu Assistant Manager and Director of Football respectively. Fans are galvanised by the fact that people who genuinely care about ‘their’ club and who have demonstrated what it takes to deliver success on the pitch, now have the authority to make key decisions.
Similarly, both Sheffield United and Aston Villa have prospered following the appointment of managers who are boyhood fans of the club, Chris Wilder and Dean Smith. For Wilder, a man who has led the Blades to two promotions up to the Premier League, honesty, character and integrity have been cornerstones of the recruitment process, and the Bramall Lane faithful have responded in kind.
With brands, the same strategy applies. People buy from companies who they like, know and trust based on a relationship cultivated over time. Prospects cleave to what is familiar and recognisable, and they want to feel their bond is rooted in an emotional connection, shared values, and a mutual understanding—that their link is more than just a transaction. Indeed, the Edelman Trust Barometer showed that emotional engagement matters more than customer satisfaction and drives brand loyalty, and clubs in the Premier League represent the sporting application of that theory.
In fact. the similarities that can be drawn up between brands and football clubs are myriad. These clubs are also businesses and they place a huge amount of importance on their PR and marketing strategy, with every piece of content tailored towards formulating an emotional bond with their fans across the world. There are lessons to be learnt for brands from the demise of two of the Football League’s founding members, Bury FC and Bolton Wanderers, who for their respective owners were little more than a transaction. For their fans and others, they were justifiable sources of civic pride in areas suffering from the decline of industry, the vandalism of the welfare state and the erosion of vital services. A football club is so much more than just a name, and brands must adopt the same mindset against the backdrop of socio-economic flux.