Identity Building in Football When brands need brains
Winning at all costs has often been associated with football, but is success the only aspect that matters to fans? A wooden saying has it that victories will only bring other victories. If so, why do some winning teams attract far less spectators to their games than other teams that actually do not perform that well on the pitch?
Branding în fotbal [Branding in football] by Vlad I. Roșca is a book recently published by ASE Publishing House and launched at Bookfest 2018, on June 2, in an event where Simona Bușoi, the manager/publisher, trained the author and his sparring partner, Octavian-Dragomir Jora, in a vivid exchange of verbal passes on the topic.
The book could not have been more relevant.
Contemporary Romanian football is facing serious branding challenges. Football clubs full of tradition and history have been dissolved and, with them, their brands and heritage have been lost as well. In some cases, their places have been taken up by what public opinion tends to call “plastic clubs”: recently established football clubs without any tradition or fan-appeal whatsoever.
That Romanian football clubs rarely ever reach the levels of performance which fans, mass-media or any other people interested in sports expect them to, is nothing new. This inability to rise to expectations not only dampens future hopes, but also makes local football look like underachieving. This perception and the fact that football fans are not attracted any longer to the game or do not know which team to support (due to several teams playing under the same brand as a consequence of judicial mismatches) have made fans move away from the terraces of the football stadiums. Declining attendance figures has been a problem in Romanian football lately. At the same time, it was also the spark for this book, which tries to find out what makes fans connect to a football club.
To reach its purpose, the book combines relationship marketing, branding and football to test whether risk can be mitigated in football branding. If the team does not perform well on the pitch (which would normally see fans step off), what can it do to keep the fans connected? Is sports value (i.e., winning matches or winning tournaments) the only type of value that a football club can offer to its fans? Are there any other ways (for example, through marketing activities) in which the club could generate added value, besides the one produced by the footballers on the playing field?
Branding în fotbal suggests a value creation model for football brands. The conceptual design employed in the research uses three relational subsystems – the clusters of stakeholders that a football club has. The internal subsystem consists of the relationship with the people and values pertaining to the inside of the club, such as footballers, coaches, the management of the club, history and tradition, stadium, football academy, visual displays or sports performances. The relational subsystem is being formed by external stakeholders with whom the football club is in touch with, such as mass-media, sponsors, federations or competitors. The market subsystem is being built by the communities of fans and consumers of the matches and connected products of the club, consisting of variables such as stadium atmosphere, group experiences, merchandising, support communities etc.
All of these factors (17 of them having been identified for the study in the book) have got an impact on the football club’s brand value. The goal of the research was to grade them according to their importance. After having interviewed Romanian football fans, the research finds out that winning matches or having sporting success is not necessarily the main driver for fans to follow a certain football club. Instead, what makes fans feel the most connection with a club, irrespective of sporting performances or the names of the players, are the history of the club, the tradition and heritage. If a football club wants to develop a strong brand, it has to invest in history and tradition. Though not just anyway, but by taking the relationship with the fans into account.
Next to branding, the other important marketing concept used in the book was relationship management. A club would not have reason to exist without fans. Therefore, the relationship with fans has to be taken into consideration. What should football clubs communicate to their fans? First of all, history and tradition, then all of the other 16 factors. All the areas are listed according to the ratings that fans have assigned to them during the research – which actually shows what the usual football fan would expect their beloved club to offer: first, history and tradition; second, positive group experiences with fellow fans; third, proper stadium facilities and conditions; fourth, sporting glory. And so on, up to the seventeenth.
The book is also a call launched to football clubs that they should never forget their fans. If football clubs have got marketing as a managerial function to use, they do not only have it for making money out of ticketing or merchandising, but also for open and honest communication with their fans and for establishing a sense of belonging between football fan and football brand. Or, else told, branding in football might just come down to creating a sense of community, where fans can feel comfortable among themselves and with the football club.
If Romanian football would need to do anything on the double, then that would be to re-build trust with the fans and bring them back to the stadium. This can happen if football clubs invest in their brand equity and deliver value to fans.