My Dad, the Brand Warrior

Friday 7th November 2014 at 1:36PM

For the everyday business, it takes a lot of work to create a Brand Warrior. Your businesses needs to be obsessed about customers; your culture designed to make customers more successful; your people feel so good about themselves that they’ll deliver inspirational cameos on a daily basis (sometimes just to achieve a smile) and your processes are so perfectly tuned in to the zeitgeist so that you’re agile to every shifting trend. 

Those businesses that I invest my time and money in may not be doing all of the above consistently, but, in essence, they’re designed not only to make sure I keep coming back to them but, more importantly, that I keep talking about them.

It’s clear that sport creates a special type of Brand Warrior, but less clear that it’s a conscious output of a carefully designed process. As a result of this, we have a situation where the sports equivalent may well exhibit extreme aspects: irrational love and loyalty, defending the ‘brand’ to the end and ensuring that, for generations to come, the line of loyal supporters continues. But, as a result of a failure to learn from the proven approaches of the world’s most successful businesses, we still regularly encounter situations where the supporter or fan ‘loves’ the team, but ‘hates’ the club.

My Dad is a brand warrior. He was 80 in September and is in good health. He’s the ultimate ‘glass half full’ man, in spite of a life long love for Sunderland AFC, which has been regularly tested ever since his first game. He took me to my first game (with my Uncle Ken, who had a Ford Capri capable of edging out the far less preferable Consett to Sunderland bus – which went nowhere near Roker Park) in October 1969.

Excitedly we took our place on the Roker End and dodged the seagulls. It was against Chelsea: not the alternately silky then bus-parking rich club we know now, but a more prosaic group of hard men who ground out a 0-0. Disappointedly, we trooped back to the car and I consoled myself with the fact that the round-collared Bobby Charlton Manchester United shirt that I’d been given the previous Christmas (along with a Geoff Hurst West Ham top) would probably offer more reliable objects for my future football love. And yet, when I got home and saw how troubled my Dad was by the failure of his beloved Mackems to create the sort of performance that would bind his son to the cause for a life time, it is alleged (by my mother) that my six and a half year old self proclaimed that I would indeed become a Sunderland supporter, as I felt so sorry for my Dad. I may be wrong, but I recall Ed ‘Stewpot’ Stewart beginning his devotion to Everton for exactly the same reason.

Later that season, we were relegated from the First Division, not to return until 1976. Even then we only stayed a year thanks to some (alleged) Jimmy Hill-inspired shenanigans that led to Coventry City delaying their kick off against Bristol City and then suspiciously playing out a draw to secure the result both clubs needed to relegate us.

Since then we’ve had our ups and downs. I’m one of those supporters who thinks we’re so lucky to be have played in the Premier League for the last 7 seasons, but few of my more enduring memories are positive. Most are closely tied to the reason for my connection in the first place: disappointment and (occasional) despair. Not two weeks ago (at Southampton) my team lost 0-8, repeating the club’s record defeat, which, I think uniquely, we’ve managed 3 times since 1968 (that latter ‘hammering’ being one of the reasons I quickly went off Geoff Hurst). These are the stories that connect me and my Dad. These are the reasons why, when I think of my Dad, I think of my team and when I think of my team, my Dad’s image immediately appears.

We’re both Brand Warriors of a sort. Devoted to the club, without attending many games, whose weekends are made or entirely wrecked on whether or not we’ve remembered that we’re part of an endearing attempt to create a series of the world’s greatest own goals. We have one glorious shared memory, in 1973 of course, which my Mother proclaimed was a miracle that proved God existed (while what’s happened since has taken us down the Richard Dawkins path to be honest with you) but most are the routine ups and downs of a wizened old pair of Sunderland boys.

Do we recruit people to the cause like the archetypical business brand warrior? I don’t know. I don’t attend games, for a variety of reasons (although that’s because I’m usually at some other sporting occasion every week) but I do talk positively about the club’s wonderful family zone and Foundation of Light community work and my Dad is still capable of holding court on Len Shackleton in Annfield Plan Cricket Club on a Tuesday night.

So how about match-attending fans more generally? Do clubs create the conditions to help them encourage more people to come? Or are we guilty of missing out on some obvious opportunities? It’s my view that we’re not pro-active enough and this has its roots in the way clubs consult with supporters.

When I look at the increasing numbers of fan panels, supporter consultation groups, councils, etc, I’m naturally encouraged by this. However, when you scrape beneath the surface, is enough being done to turn this positive partnership into growth for the club? Sometimes, if I’m honest, it seems as if the panel has been established for other reasons (holding the club to account, giving privileged access to a senior club official or sometimes without clear objectives at all).  I’m not saying clubs shouldn’t be challenged, but if the meetings require every single piece of detail to be minuted (with a resulting delay that means the discussion does not reach the wider fan base for weeks) then you can understand why, in some cases, those outside of ‘the circle of trust’ feel a little alienated or indifferent to these earnest engagement efforts.

If our panels have clear objectives, such as ‘to grow the club’ or ‘to grow advocacy for the club’ with clear processes for allowing all key constituencies to be represented and with agreed action points quickly and openly communicated, then surely they will produce effective solutions.  For example, such as giving season ticket holders the chance, on a couple of matches a season, to decide who THEY would like to give a discounted ticket to, since that supports the idea of the match attending fan as the Brand Warrior and Recruitment Officer.

Again, I go back to Philadelphia Union’s original approach to rewarding loyalty. Rather than simply linking purchase history or season ticket membership to price reductions or priority for key games, they link it to the behaviours that, to their fans, represent true loyalty.

So if you attend a Cat B or C game, you get more points than if you attend a big game. If you travel to away games, turn up early, turn up on a day when the weather is appalling respond to a request from the club for feedback or register a complaint, you get more and more points until the point where you convert your points in ‘money can’t buy experiences’. Surely this is a good example of how to create Brand Warriors and Recruitment Officers.

My Dad perhaps wasn’t at his most effective when consciously acting as a Brand Warrior for Sunderland in my formative years. Arguments mostly revolved around whether or not the fact that we owned our ground (and Newcastle allegedly rented theirs from the council) meant we were a better team, so he’s maybe not the best example.  But there’s no doubting the rigour of his love for the club. Nothing was allowed to sway his unswerving belief that Sunderland was a movement that more people should be part of.

The biggest challenge facing clubs outside of the elite is to sustainably build attendances, so the absence of more considered approaches to using the fan base as the chief recruiting tool is sometimes baffling. But by reflecting on the way we directly engage with supporters and building consultation processes designed with clear objectives in mind, we can tap into to the irrational, but amazingly powerful Brand advocacy we have out there and replace the peaks and troughs in growth with a more sustainable outcome.

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