Football and branding go hand in hand. From team sponsorships to player endorsements, global brands have long vied to get their names in the game. Given the global appeal of the sport, it’s not hard to see why. 

But what can big brands learn from the teams they sponsor? After all, clubs both small and large enjoy the kind of intense and lifelong loyalty from their supporters that most businesses can only dream of. So what’s their secret? What makes the brand of a football team really work? And how can businesses use this to encourage loyalty and support in their own consumers? Let’s find out. . .

Tradition and inheritance 

How do most people choose which team they support? Well, a lot of the time they don’t. More often than not, we support a team because our parents support them. 

It’s an inherited form of brand loyalty, reinforced by the fact that many of our local neighbours and friends will likely also support the same team. Often it’s based on geography — our families tend to support the local club. But the important thing here is the idea of inheritance

In football, a supporter’s loyalty to their club can be so intense that they actually pass that support on to their children. This is a very strong form of brand advocation. But it works with products and services too. Think of the age old Pepsi vs Coca-Cola battle. A person who drinks exclusively Coca-Cola is extremely likely to only ever buy the same drink for their children. Their children, in turn, will likely grow up with the same brand preference, and eventually pass it on to their children.

This is also supported by an idea discussed in Brand Values and a Typology of Premiership Football Fans, a research paper out of Warwick Business School.  According to the paper, “being a fan fulfils the needs of sharing, feeling and belonging. It provides an acceptable outlet for exhibiting emotions and feelings.” 

In supporting the same team as family and friends, people become part of a local and personal tradition. They can share in victories and losses and discuss player performances, which ultimately allows for authentic, generation-bridging, bonding experiences.

Success = support

Albeit rather controversially, the same paper cites a survey which revealed that the level of a supporter’s engagement is positively correlated to the performance of the club.

So the better a team plays, the more tickets and merchandise the fans buy. Looking at this from a branding perspective, it could be argued that the perceived quality of a brand plays a large role in its commercial success

We only need to look at brands like Apple to see this principal in practise. Apple’s products are consistently marketed as the best of their kind: they’re the sleekest, lightest, fastest, brightest. This leads consumers to believe in the inherent quality of their products. Most of the time when someone buys an Apple product, they believe they’re getting the best product on the market. 

The point is that it doesn’t matter whether a MacBook really is the best laptop around. It’s marketed (and perceived by many) as a successful, high quality product. And, just like with many football clubs, its “success” is what sells. 

A personal story

The most successful stories are often the ones that contain the most believable, true-to-life characters. When we watch a film, or read a book, we project ourselves onto the characters. That’s why the best characters are always the ones who remind us a little bit of ourselves.

The same goes for football. It’s surely no coincidence that many of the legendary heroes of any given club were often born and bred in the local area (think Shearer and Newcastle United). People like local heroes. We like to be able to point to a house, not too dissimilar to our own, and say, “Such-and-such lived there once!”

In football, people like to see relatable people playing for their teams — people who are, in many ways, just like everybody else. It helps to sustain a personal connection between the supporter and the club. When a player plays for their home city, it’s easy to believe they’re doing it purely out of passion, which serves to fuel our own passion for the club.

This is much the same with all brands. When we see people who we both idolise and relate to associated with a certain brand, our feelings of trust towards that brand naturally increase

This could also explain why some fans actually switch allegiances when a favourite player moves clubs. In such cases, their loyalty towards an individual trumps their loyalty towards the team. 

What this boils down to from a branding perspective is, simply, that your people are your brand. In fact, sometimes your people are more important than any other facet of your brand. This is why sponsorships and endorsements work so well. 

So if we use our brands to tell personal stories, we can connect on a much deeper level with our audiences. If consumers can see themselves in the shoes of our brand ambassadors, they can identify themselves as part of the brand itself

Innovate, but never forget the fans

It’s probably no coincidence that football clubs rarely, if ever, change the basic colour of their home strips. When you think of Manchester United, you think red. Chelsea, blue. 

Whilst the actual design of the kit may change (look at how Tottenham’s kit has changed over the last 6 years as an example), its basic identity seldom does. Because the kit’s core identity is what anchors it to its past, its heritage, and its supporters

There’s a branding lesson to be learned here. Chiefly that change can be good, but it should rarely be so drastic that the end result is unrecognisable. Even if you’re trying to branch out and reach new audiences, you need to remain loyal to those who have been with you from the beginning

Beyond the final whistle 

Unfortunately, supporters don’t come as easily or naturally to businesses as they do to football clubs. In sport there are many external factors that contribute to an individual’s support and loyalty. But there are strategies and approaches we can all borrow from the beautiful game in order to enhance our own businesses.  

For more on football and branding, take a look at The 7 Best World Cup Posters Of All Time