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Opinion | Why the digital age demands a revised fan-centric approach for sporting brands

Jung von Matt SPORTS chief executive Robert Zitzmann and Soeren Jessen, the creative agency's head of strategy, explain why building an authentic and relevant brand identity starts with a fan-centric, emotion-led approach.

13 April 2021 Guest Contributor

From opportunity to complexity: the battle for fans is a battle of brands.

The digitisation of sports is nothing but overwhelming. Following the rise of social media, we have been gifted with loads of new tech and gold mines of big data. And we’re currently experiencing the breakthrough of crypto, blockchain, NFTs and more. In theory – and yet partly in practice – all these trends and topics symbolise the commercial growth potential for sport organisations.

What started once as a collaborative ecosystem between media, sponsors and rights holders has now become a battle of many more and all for one: the direct access to consumers, their digital journeys, their fingerprints and wallets. 

While evolving its business from B2B to D2C, the commercial future for sports requires more than 5G or OTT. Clubs, leagues, associations, athletes: they all face a new business battle of increasing complexity. To make smart and sustainable decisions, we have to remember the original value proposition and root of revenue for the supply and value chains in sports: the reason why humans become audiences, why advertisers become sponsors, and why logos become licences. This 'reason why' starts with identity and emotionality, shared in unique relationships between brands and fans.

From valuation to values: brand love is built on emotions, not transactions

The need for rights holders to remember their root of revenue – identity and emotionality – stems from the basic psychological theories of self-concept and self-perception. People are drawn to brands when they perceive a brand as part of their own identity and are thus emotionally attached to it.

But the regularly proclaimed fan-centric approach of rights holders is too often based on a transaction-driven and platform-driven logic: trying to drive the digital journeys of people rather than understanding their attitudes and motivations as part of their self-concept and buying decisions. Data alone won't do the job. Brands need to understand the zeitgeist to build and grow human connections, for example by creating value-driven communities and cultures that people want to belong to.

Fifa's new esports vertical aims to develop a global gaming culture

To shift from push to pull and create a certain level of magnetism, rights holders need to invest resources in defining fundamental values and principles for their organisations, services, products and contents – the starting point for the creation of communities and cultures – especially since the highly desired Generation Z seeks orientation and inspiration beyond a digital overload. 

As an example of best practice, Fifa has launched a new vertical to cover all of its esports and gaming assets. The goal: growing efootball not just as a competitive sport and traditional tournament-based marketing platform, but to foster and grow a global gaming culture. The outcome is the brand IP of FIFAe – an ecosystem for a new generation that puts the emotional value creation for fans first. 

In essence, by regarding customer-centricity in sports as an emotional relationship-building rather than a transactional approach, rights holders open more doors to long-term and scalable business viability.

From brand to business: why image still is the commercial GOAT

Taking the brand-to-fan logic forward, sports can seed commercial yield beyond B2C. Putting a spotlight on B2B, the numbers prove that sponsorship remains a leading revenue stream for many organisations in sports. And with the projection that media revenue will disrupt from a publisher-paid and a platform-owned approach, sponsorship will naturally remain a mighty force in sports business.

But what makes sponsorship so valuable compared to traditional advertising, digital or programmatic media? The simple truth is that it is more than just an efficient media buy. 

For brands, the USP of sponsorship is to boost brand image and, through shared identities, leverage access to audiences and communities through a common passion point. Outside of any digital consumption data, the shared interest and enthusiasm for a sporting event such as the Super Bowl or a club such as Liverpool is the most relevant data point for brands to make partnerships a success. And that's why the concept of brand identity for sports properties is not a commodity. It’s a competitive advantage when pitching for advertisers and commercial partners, or when innovating with new digital products.

Another fascinating benchmark is Jürgen Klopp, a soccer manager and popular ambassador for a wide range of brands. While the 'Normal One' doesn't even have a Twitter account (or any other public social profile), sponsors grasp for his face and voice due to his unique and authentic character – his personal identity.

Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp's new partnership with Adidas highlights how brands prize identity and values 

As the latest brand on the block, Adidas has signed with Klopp stating that both partners aim to “do more together” – for football, sports and society. This case also confirms that social values will become mandatory for the brand identity of rights holders when advertisers choose to invest in them. Or we could predict: 'purposeship' will change sponsorship due to its value-driven nature.

But the brands-first approach is not just the root for traditional consumer or partner-related revenue streams – it's also the best source of inspiration for innovation.

Just like NBA Top Shot, a new beta platform to collect special moments from players as digital trading cards and exclusively tagged contents. NFTs – non-fungible tokens built on the principles of blockchain – are much more than a merch-tech innovation. The early success of NBA Top Shot as a branded digital product dates back to the original phenomenon of fandom: the inexplicable desire to belong and represent.

Data alone won't do the job. Brands need to understand the zeitgeist to build and grow human connections.

Obviously, some users are in it to profit from the rising monetary values of their cards as if it was the New York Stock Exchange, but the obvious licensing value and long-game commercial potential is built on the magnetism of the NBA brand and its associated partners, such as the LA Lakers or LeBron James.  

Looking ahead, commercial excellence is not just a matter of quantity and trending opportunity. What matters most in sport are relatable and desireable identities that cater to direct relationships and communities beyond purchase.

The brands-first mindset will help rights holders to unleash their full potential, embracing the digital age as part of an evolving entertainment and participation culture in sports, where tech is a tool and brands are the reason. 

Robert Zitzmann and Soeren Jessen
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