By Yolanda Davis, Thinker on The Match with Ogilvy Change

With the Christmas rush of Premier League games over, thoughts turn naturally to the end of the competition and the spoils of victory – a Champions League place, effortless sponsorship conversations with the Nike marketing team and the inevitable joy that The Arsenal have once again, failed to win the title since 2004.

The Arsenal legacy is a true boneyard of romance. While other teams feel the ups and downs, Arsenal remain a constant disappointment. Stuck in a never-ending period of stasis within the top 6 and under the leadership of the longest serving manager of Premier League history, awards a kind of unwilling status to its hard done by fans. Yet devotion thrives. Though Arsenal TV is filled weekly with Clydes, eager to bounce their bitter disappointment off engaged ears, to their number, they are matched by bright eyed optimistic Tys itching to come back after a ‘bad day at the office’. Applying a behavioural insight lens, we can get a better understanding of the nudges that play a part in the unique phenomenon of Arsenal fandom.

"Arsenal fans react: I'm numb to the psychological torture Wenger's inflicted on me in the last 13 years"

Labour Illusion

Arsenal play wonderful football, on a good day. That’s an undeniable fact. Even Iniesta once claimed that Arsenal played the most beautiful football in England- admittedly this was in 2014 but the point still stands. The labour illusion (Morales, 2005) suggests that consumers attribute more value to brands when it appears that they have exerted extra effort in the creation of a product or service regardless of the innate quality of the product. Those that take the time to admire the wizardry of Ozil’s touch and Bergkamp’s pirouette, and who still see the 2006 Champions League Final as a win for the club as they just PLAYED better than Barcelona will likely hold out for their deserved return in trophies. They may be a long time waiting with Welbeck starting games, but the hope is admirable.

Habit Formation

However, in recent years, Arsenal’s tenure as figureheads of beautiful football has been brought into question. How can Arsenal fans continue to have faith in their team which has no prospect of winning? By burying their heads in the sand. People often ignore the choices they have available to them in favour of going with the flow that was established through routines and adherence to existing behavioural patterns. Habits are, by definition, automatic and appear as instinctive. It’s why Arsenal fans will always settle for winning Twitter polls on the BBC Sport Homepage as they have done for a number of years and continue to wallow and moan when they lose to Nottingham Forest 4-2 in the 3rd Round of the FA cup – they don’t know much else.

Sunk Cost

If you’ve stuck with this article like you’ve stuck with The Arsenal, to the bitter end, that has a huge impact on your attitude towards them as a team. If you’re lucky enough to be born on the right side of North London, the choice to support the team may not have been a choice at all, but any fan who has more than a season’s worth of some kind of loyalty to the club will behaviourally be unlikely to abandon it, even during such testing times. Simply put, we are prone to stick by a decision once we have invested a significant amount of effort doing so. Arsenal’s Instagram page does a fantastic job of explicitly reinforcing this commitment with throwback posts and reminders of heritage in efforts to make people feel like they’re ‘failing’ the team if they choose not to support. We’re encouraged to believe we only have ourselves to blame if Arsenal lose matches, we just didn’t support them hard enough.

Exploring these nudges sets the context for not only understanding the psychology of fandom, but also the unique relationship sport holds with its supporters, an invaluable set of tools in any behavioural strategist’s arsenal (see what I did there). Once broken down, there are so many facets to being an Arsenal fan that it almost makes it impossible not to be one, which is good for me, as I was desperately looking for an excuse with the likely prospect of finishing 7th this year looming.

Morales, A. C. 2005. Giving firms an “E” for effort: Consumer responses to high-effort firms. J. Consumer Res. 31(4) 806–812.