Fans Are The Brand - Ignore This At Your Peril

Tomorrow, like the forty thousand odd other Chelsea fans, my son and I will be off to Stamford Bridge to have our loyalty over a difficult season rewarded with a free bottle of the sponsor's beer and a firework display. It's a nice touch that a lot of clubs could learn from. In the days of crazy money some clubs just might be in fear of forgetting that not only is customer experience the new marketing, but also that fans are actually the brand -- they're an integral part of what they sell. Clubs that forget this will find themselves in serious trouble.

What do I mean by this? Well, I'd never tell another business how to price their goods or services, but I'll always be the first to point out the marketing pitfalls associated with their decision. You can argue all day about whether Liverpool's £77 tickets in a new stand was too much for the football fan to bear, but I bet you anything the club would have been able to sell those tickets for every Premier League game. Demand for seats at the top clubs outstrips supply, and so a normal entrepreneur would do the obvious thing and put prices up. That's how normal economics would work -- but of course, there is nothing normal about football, or soccer if you prefer.

I'm not going to get into a dispatch about the game being for the fans and lambast the chairmen -- who for the most point are the brave ones who put their money into a club, usually for no reward, other than in the top clubs. No, the real point here is very simple and it might have escaped the clever marketing and sales people at the big clubs because they don't actually have to try very hard to fill their stadia. At local lower-league clubs, there are all manner of loyalty schemes and "kid for a quid" days to fill the seats. The big clubs that are known around the world don't have to bother with such discounting.

However, this opens up a trap. Put very simply, fans are the brand. When television companies put more than five billion pounds into a new tv deal they are doing so because they want the top action to attract eyeballs that will attract sponsors and advertisers. What can be  missing here is an understanding that those sponsors, advertisers and television audiences also want something very special -- the roar of the crowd. A lot of the songs feature expletives -- but on the whole, much of what the Premier League has to sell is the excitement, the screams, the "oohs" and "ahhhs" -- the roars, cheers and rousing anthems that circle any normal top-flight game.

Ironically, the people who can afford to take the whole family to a game for £77 each are not the typical fan, and they're not going to come every week. They will typically sit there and enjoy the game and soak up the atmosphere. Which brings us back to the point: if all the seats are £77 or so, then there is no atmosphere because you don't have the typical fan in there who knows the songs and has the passion to sing them. All you're left with then are quiet stadiums with people moaning that the atmosphere has gone out of the game. We're dangerously close to a tipping point where this could happen. There's an entire stand at Chelsea, for example, that is like a library, and the middle tier of the stand facing it -- where people have paid a fortune to have a meal with the game -- is similarly quiet.

I don't mean this to sound like the typical moaning of a fan calling in to a radio show to vent their spleen, I am talking purely as someone with an interest in both football and marketing. If you don't accept the point that fans are the brand, then you're seriously missing something and you'll be ok for a year or two while the huge bucks rolls in, and then straight out again in unbelievably huge player wages. But then you'll be left with no atmosphere, nobody wanting to pay a fortune for a quiet game and no tv company wanting to splash billion on games played in front of half empty stadia.

Now, I'm a Chelsea season ticket holder and life-long fan, so I have to declare an interest here. The club doesn't always get it right. The row between Jose and the team's highly respected doctor was a truly depressing low point that pitted the fans who understand that rule number one is player safety against a megalomaniac manager on his way to blaming everything and everyone in the world other than himself for poor results. However, the club got it right with cutting the cost of European football nights and slashing the price of FA Cup tickets -- children can see a game for just £15. The best thing it did, not just because it wound up the opposition managers, was to hand out Chelsea flags to fans on European nights so the players and the fans alike could see a wall of flags waving along to the chants. It looked great live, and it looked even better on television. Everything the club has done in its marketing points to the close link between the players and the passion of the fans.

If clubs try to squeeze more money out of the fans, they will find they will probably get away with it, but only in the short term until they realise an axiom that every marketer should apply to their own brand -- the fans are the brand. Plain and simple.

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