SOAP BOX: Sports branding has to keep the fans on your side

Apparently, consumers trust Kellogg’s Corn Flakes more than the police or Parliament. Research this week by the Henley Centre has demonstrated just how influential brands are, and marketers have discovered over the past 20 years that branding can be applied to almost anything.

Apparently, consumers trust Kellogg’s Corn Flakes more than the

police or Parliament. Research this week by the Henley Centre has

demonstrated just how influential brands are, and marketers have

discovered over the past 20 years that branding can be applied to almost


In the 80s, telecommunications and financial services were the big boom

areas, now it’s the turn of a far more unlikely sector - sport. Football

is leading the way. Merchandise, credit cards, branded events and, most

recently, a TV channel from Manchester United are stoking the fires of a

major trend. Even sports personalities are getting in on the act; Eric

Cantona, Damon Hill and Alan Shearer have registered themselves as


Inevitably, marketers will be excited at the opportunity - what other

product has such a massive and often international following? Sport

seems to be an untapped goldmine, a ready-made consumer base ripe for

the taking. For instance, brand-stretch king Richard Branson has taken

over the London Broncos and the entry of rugby to the fray has become a

compulsive soap through the TV documentary charting the triumphs and

tragedies of Bath Rugby plc.

But the big question is how far can the whole process be taken without

the brand snapping? If you can have a TV channel and Premiership milk

and you can create a line of clothing, maybe you could have package

holidays or even a pension scheme. There is a risk that the brand will

take one step too far away from its core personality and lose its

relevance. Is a Ryan Giggs duvet cover good branding or an


Then there is the problem of branding without destroying. Sport is not

like an FMCG product. It requires sensitivity from marketers if branding

is not to distort the chemistry between the fan and the game. Anyone who

doubts that fans resent manipulation of their loyalty need look no

further than the reaction to clubs changing their strips with increasing


But perhaps the greatest challenge for the marketer is the fact that

sport does not have the consistency that has become a pre-requisite for

a successful brand which grows steadily and without major trauma. Core

equities for a football club may be logically based on values such as

excellence, premiumness and winning. So, how do you build in the

resilience to cope with setbacks?

The City is notoriously unforgiving of failure and the drive for sports

branding is coming from investors’ desire to make sport feel more like

predictable FMCG brands. In essence, brands say ’quality guaranteed’,

but the very nature of sport means that it can never duplicate this

offer, at least at club level.

Perhaps the greatest opportunity will prove to be with the events

themselves which have enormous potential - as witnessed by UEFA

Champions League, Wimbledon or Formula 1. Whatever happens it will

certainly test the mettle of marketers to ensure that brand cynicism

doesn’t overtake sport.


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