When the football pyramid burns

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I’m often either asked “what’s that?” referring to a pendant I sport. Or someone would exclaim “Wow! Nottingham Forest?” whenever I don one of the famous garibaldi red. Famous should be viewed in relative terms. 

It’s been 2 decades since Forest were in the heady heights of the English Premier League. Three since they won back-to-back European Cups. Despite the club enjoying their best spell of sustained success in 70s and 80s, I was still surrounded by Manchester United and Liverpool fans at school. And now, the London teams of Chelsea, Spurs and Arsenal at work. 

With double European Cup winner Kenny Burns, who played for Nottingham Forest between 1977-81.

So, one can imagine what a longsuffering fan I have been, having to answer the above ever so often, not forgetting the frequently asked “why Nottingham Forest?”

Along with an estimated 3.5 billion football fans in the world, many of us follow a football team with unwavering loyalty, regardless of how they perform over the years. Case in point.

Football clubs are also businesses and brands with clear identities, characters and behaviours. While our relationships with brands can be fickle and at times, subject to trends, loyalty to a football club however, is different. Our devotion transcends any success or failure on the pitch. And we make a lot of noise. Through the advent of technology, 280- character feedback is instant, honest, sometimes unfounded, and often inappropriate. If it’s not picked up at a stadium on match days, there’s plenty to go around on social media, before, during and after a game.

For the lifelong supporters and season ticket-holders, we feel we own a bit of the club and have a say. After all, we will be there longer than most owners, managers, coaches and players these days. 

What more could a brand want?

As fans, we all want success. New billionaire owners and the influx of their cash are most welcome. But money don’t often bring corresponding successes. Like brands, no amount of money is worth sacrificing what makes our clubs special. There are some core brand elements that football clubs – and businesses – must handle with care. And, just like brands, if a football club don’t behave the right way, they are found out quickly.

Contrasting Fortunes

As a business, football outside the top flight is daunting. Three weeks ago, a football club of 134 years was expelled from the English football league and Bury, as a town is now without a football club. The effects of this adjudication would seemingly affect businesses, smallholders, communities and the spirit of the town itself. 

Twenty English Premier League (EPL) clubs will earn more than £5bn from their current three-year television deal. By comparison, the 72 English Football League (EFL) clubs will earn less than an eighth of that between them – an estimate of £595m over five years.

Just to provide the context of this gulf, while Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium and United’s Old Trafford is only 25 minutes in a car, and 15 or so kilometres from Bury’s Gigg Lane either way, there is a financial world of difference between them. 

Between the red and blue of Manchester, they have spent a transfer sum of over GBP 250million for 4 players over the summer. Yet, Bury Football Club could not pay the wages of their staff and players.

Never before has there been so vast a gap between those at the top of English football and those trying to get there. And within this gap exists the playground of the rich, the unwary and the ill-advised, the unlucky and the daft. 

Owners today spend big in the hopes of earning bigger in the shortest time frame possible. But if one fails, the club has a long way to fall. Even people who own airlines will not be spared. 

For the fan

“This expulsion has ripped the heart out of our town, out of our club and out of my mum and the family,” says Bury-born Phil Neville to BBC Sport recently. Neville’s mother resigned as club secretary in the wake of the expulsion, while his late father who was a director at the club for 26 years has a stand named after him.

Loyalty in football is deep-rooted. 

“You’ll never beat Des Walker” former Nottingham Forest captain and one of England’s best centre half during his time!

You don’t swap clubs and you never give up on them. I know. I have been a Forest fan for the last 42 years. We have witnessed more than 26 managers pass through the turnstiles since we were relegated from the Premiership in 1999, and we approach every new season with our rose-tinted glasses.

Football fans in Malaysia are similar. They support their home states in national competitions with a fiery passion. Even when several state players or coaches were charged with bringing the game into disrepute, fans stood behind their state. Because that’s what football fans do.

You could grow up in the north of Malaysia and still know that Larkin Stadium is the home of football in the south. Very similar, just as you knew Anfield is Liverpool, Stamford Bridge is Chelsea and The City Ground is Nottingham Forest. 

The ground is where you stood with family and friends and probably where you first saw their unrestrained joy. It’s where you would use language you wouldn’t in front of a girl you fancy. It’s where you often felt like you were among your own. Chasing after the same thing – a win! 

There will always be something special about supporting your club through thick and thin that makes you appreciate the good times even more. 

Top down support, bottom up vision

Not all brands enjoy the unbreakable bond with their customers that football clubs do with their fans. Thus, football club owners would do well to work even harder to nurture and grow those relationships. 

Understanding the community in which you are operating in is also key. Know your audience and listen to them. When Nottingham Forest’s owner, Evangelos Marinakis announced plans for The New City Ground, he had set out to do exactly that.  

Invest in enhancing the identity that already resonates. Remember that most football clubs like brands have a longstanding identity. Position and highlight the strength of the brand. The stadia shouldn’t be a visual onslaught of partner logos and promotions. Hospitality services unique to the city and culture and general experiences that makes every visit memorable can come from people, food and concessions. 

Fans often interact across multiple business platforms. On a daily basis, the fan engages socially, visit the website for tickets, purchase merchandise, view banner ads off-site, watch content on YouTube, receives regular newsletters and apps notification on news from the club or sponsors. The list is endless.

The singular link in creating a cohesive and unified fan experience is therefore the brand. When adhering to the brand identity, customer-focused departments such as communications and marketing have little trouble. For others, it may be a tricky concept to embrace. This is where a brand charter for the fan is important, because the ultimate intent of commercial partners is to share the value and sentiment fans hold for a team’s brand. 

Failing to keep a watchful eye on these behavioural process as part of your brand strategy can mean the difference between a business growing or failing. 

This is the main reason why football clubs like Bury evoke such emotions because it remains relevant to an audience. There are many close substitutes which the loyal fan may admire or have a good word for, but they will always have that affinity towards that one club. Their club.

The pain of this loss for the community of Bury will remain for some time. All those jobs. People who print and distribute match-day programmes, the people who make and deliver pies, the groundsmen who cared for the pitch. The townsfolk will miss the ground. They will miss the team. The home kit with the club crest. All the songs, chants, proud boasts and obscene taunts. All the records they created, both good and bad. Tied to something they do not want to leave behind. 

At the end of it all, the townsfolk of Bury, like many of us football fans bought into an experience, not just a ticket.  

 

Consumers today have so many different media options that are all a swipe and a click away. They are overloaded at every angle and channel. If you feel your brand suffers from lack of engagement, you are not alone. We now live in a world where people are easy to reach but hard to engage. We would love to explore ways to help identify your communication conundrum and crystallise the resolve.

 

Carousel photo credits: Visit Nottinghamshire