Become a part of your fans’ stories
In every single industry, determining what your brand will represent is an immeasurably crucial first step. The importance of it is highlighted in the sports industry, whether it be for a new team setting down roots in a market or for an existing team that needs to revamp its identity within its market. In this process, there is an initial impulse to design a brand that, when presented to the target audience, will motivate them to flock to it. In other words, this means creating a brand story that fans and potential fans will want to become a part of. This seems very intuitive, and indeed it can be very effective when directed at audiences that are already primed for and excited about the sport and the team.
But what about a team entering or rebranding within a market that’s not quite convinced about the story a team’s brand has to tell? Consider as an example a team that wants to enter or grow within a market with a lot of growth potential but which has very little history with the sport. The market’s population is not primed to buy into the story told by the team. An alternative way of thinking about branding needs to be used in such cases. Rather than determining a story to be told to potential fans, the team must become a part of their story instead. There are several ways to approach and achieve this task, but here we will consider three starting points; appealing to existing motivations, leveraging secondary associations, and creating pathways within a fan’s story.
“The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have, the goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.” Simon Sinek said this in a Ted talk which broke down the basic principle behind his book Start with Why. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it,” Sinek insists, and his principles are extremely useful in an industry like sports, where you are not selling a physical product, you are selling an experience. However, since there is no clear-cut way to guarantee the constant success of the team in competition, the experience you are selling can’t rely on the team’s performance alone. The brand itself has to be what you are selling, and it has to be created around a “why” that is an intrinsic part of your target audience’s existing motivations. You could approach this from a somewhat universal point such as the importance of community or perseverance against adversity. Alternatively, you could tailor it to the specific market in which your team will be operating and appeal to more region-specific beliefs such as strength in diversity or conservative values. Either way, you must ask yourself the question; what are your audience’s beliefs, and how will you show them that your team’s brand is aligned with them?
Sponsorships and endorsements are obvious components of building brand equity, but when you are building a brand identity based on your audience’s story, these are chosen a little bit differently. While it is important to acquire strategic partnerships with large entities for the overall business plan, It can only get you so far in terms of tying your brand in with fans and potential fans’ existing identities. Kotler and Keller argue that one way to create brand equity is by “linking the brand to other information in memory that conveys meaning to consumers,” or in other words, to leverage secondary associations (Marketing Management, 15e, pg 312). This means that instead of just focusing on getting the biggest names for sponsorships, partnerships, and endorsements, you have to also acquire the ones that are already linked to the identity of your specific target audience. Consider local cultural events, artists who evoke local support, and businesses with enduring ties to the local community. Then take these partnerships and use them to shape your team’s brand as one that represents and is aligned with the identity of the people in your market.
If you are a marketing or branding professional, you are intimately familiar with one form or another of the marketing funnel illustrated above. A simplistic approach to take when looking at your organization’s marketing funnel is to think “what techniques could we use to move fans toward the bottom of the funnel?” But if you’re going to approach the branding of your team from the perspective of becoming part of your fans’ stories, there is a better way to ask the question; “what do fans need in order to move along the funnel, and how can I build pathways for them based on those needs?” Simply put, focus on the customer’s journey first instead of coming at the funnel from the company’s point of view. For your specific market and your specific target audience, ask yourself how you can best meet them at each stage and create the pathways they need to move to the next one. Those pathways need to be tailored to the fans’ stories, not to an abstract story you are trying to sell them.
It goes without saying that before undertaking any of the three strategies above, you must first do your research as far as getting to know your audience. What are these stories you are trying to be part of? Is there a communal sense of identity in the region you’re in that you should associate your brand with? Are there multiple ones? What motivates your audience and how can you align your brand with their beliefs? The list of questions goes on, but the potential for reward is great. Think back to the marketing funnel in the last strategy presented. The ultimate place your fans can be at is loyalty. True loyalty toward a team can transcend winning or losing records, but it is rarely achieved unless the team itself becomes part of the fan’s identity. But to do that, it must first become a part of their story.