By Martin Delamere, Content Strategist at OgilvyOne:
This season, football fans staged a series of smart campaigns that agencies and activists would be proud of. Their spectacular demonstrations have questioned the nature of value and ownership in the game. What follows is a short tale of what to do and what not to do when your ‘customers’ are in revolt.
For many brands, marketing exposure in live television sport is at the leading edge of the battle for attention. Live sport was arguably the market driver that paid for broadband rollout in Britain. As audiences scatter over platforms the mass draw of regular live events becomes ever more valuable. For American advertisers, the Super Bowl ads are read as an industry bellwether. When a star like Beyoncé wants to share her concerns, the bigger stage she chooses is the Superbowl.
In England, the Premier League has a new logo and television deal. You will notice Barclays is no longer title sponsor. When you have just sold your domestic TV Rights for £5.1 billion, over three years, the title sponsorship isn’t as important as having a clean brand for international markets. English clubs like Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and most recently, and improbably, Leicester City are known all over the world. Millions view the games on television and follow the teams on social media.
John W. Henry the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox and The Boston Globe added Liverpool Football Club to his Fenway Sports Group in 2010. He later explained his interest in Liverpool and ‘soccer’ to his local chamber of commerce: “What Americans don’t know is that when we play our rivals Manchester United the worldwide audience on television is about a billon people. That’s about nine times the size of the audience for the Super Bowl”.
Commanding this sort of global attention makes the league worth billions.
But modern football has a problem. Fans all over Europe are in revolt.
This season fans have had to resort to impressive campaigns to ensure that their essential part in the multi billion pound “unscripted drama’ is not overlooked.
Fans know that the tribal rituals of the English game are part of the global sell. Full stadiums of passionate supporters play well on television. They are the chorus, atmosphere and social proof, always ready for their close up.
Essential to the drama of the Premier League are dedicated away fans. They turn up, hopefully outnumbered, to compete in volume, singing and spectacle with the home supporters. Away fans have a long standing “Twenty is plenty” campaign challenging the costs of tickets and travelling. Some clubs prize and subsidize their away fans, others pump up prices for big games.
In the Bundesliga, Dortmund fans, usually among the loudest in Europe, took to their seats late, pulling focus for their “Football should be affordable” banner. Hundreds of tennis balls then rained down to the pitch, comically non-violent but totally disrupting the game. Expensive players stooped to collect the balls - live on television.
At Charlton Athletic the fans are in dispute with an owner they see as a damaging, absentee landlord. A coalition of fans has run an impressive campaign: wearing alternative colours, throwing 1500 beach balls on the pitch and holding a mock funeral for the soul of the club. They are questioning the ethics and limitations of ownership. They want their Charlton back.
At Arsenal, Manchester United fans joined with home supporters to challenge ticket prices in the wake of the new television deal: “£5Bn and what do we get? £64 a ticket”.
Liverpool’s supporters - especially in the Kop end of the stadium - bring banners and flags and ritually sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone”, (hence the hashtag #YNWA), bringing a carnival feel to Anfield. In Liverpool they know how to put on a show.
But the celebration has recently been replaced by a tale about being priced out of the game. The “Let me tell you a story of a poor boy…” banner makes plain the inflation of ticket prices beyond affordability.
Across the league, in fan forums and social media the echoes the message ‘supporters not customers’. The language of marketing is rejected. Fans do not want to be treated like customers. There is no trust in that deal. In fan debates across social media, the word customer has become a put-down.
On a Fenway Sports Group corporate website someone was not thinking. They boasted about “Transforming fans into customers”. This might count as a Freudian slip, after all nothing is gratuitous. Either way the thinking was pointed out on social media.
It does not take focus groups, analysis of social media or customer forums to pick up the message: do not belittle us. We are more than mugs in this game. Somehow, across the league, that message was ignored.
Fenway could rightly consider themselves popular; welcome white knight owners, builders of a new stand and having just secured a well-liked new manager. Confidence was not misplaced. But then someone at Liverpool decided this was the time to put up the prices. Perhaps on the spreadsheet it looked like a neat idea; punchy new prices in the new stand, leave the vocal Kop area alone. But the headline was damning, Liverpool Football club were going to start charging £77 a ticket. In the wake of the new TV deal the move felt careless and remote.
Everything communicates but especially in the world of football.
The fan reaction was quick. A new hash tag appeared alongside the legend #YNWA, #WalkOutOn77. A leaflet was printed warning that this was “the first stage of many planned protests”, the first scheduled for the 77th minute of the next home game. The words were neat, authentic and direct, signing off with “Love the team – Hate the prices”. The bat call had gone out.
Social media lit up. Fan groups provided email templates that challenged the sponsors to question FSG. The sponsors’ streams on social media were suddenly full of Liverpool fans.
At the match the banners are a lesson for the owners. Some signs were ambitious; many were printed at home, simply held above heads. “A season ticket holder for over thirty years and you treat us like this”, “From father to son not with FSG”, “Mr. Ayre, I am not a customer, I am a fan”. The messages reject the short term and transactional way the club had behaved.
The fans think of themselves as long-term stakeholders in the ‘LFC Family’.
As legendary Scottish manager Jock Stein said, “Football without fans is nothing”.
Liverpool were two up, but on the 77th minute the fans start walking out, because, of course, at Anfield you never walk alone. The fans knew exactly what they were doing; 10,000 voted with their feet. No carnival, no noise. Exit the brand, stage right.
Local legend, ex-player and Sky pundit Jamie Carragher is snapped walking out - knowing it would pop up on the social streams.
The fans were teaching the owners and club a point about political economy that the spreadsheets did not show. Far from being destructive, they were thinking of the long-term health of the whole institution. Downgrading support to a transaction destroys the goodwill.
Now the fans have the attention of the club, the league and other supporters. Fan forums took up the example of the Anfield protests and suggested a Premier League -wide campaign around away ticket prices. There were warnings of more to come and it looks for a moment like a house of cards.
The owners and the club reacted quickly, in a letter to the fans there is a fulsome apology; “On behalf of everyone at Fenway Sports Group and Liverpool Football Club we would like to apologize for the distress caused by our ticket pricing plan for the 2016/17 season.” More tickets are made available at a discount for young fans, ticket prices are frozen and the situation became more equitable; “the widespread opposition to this element of the plan has made it clear that we were mistaken…message received.”
Shortly after, the Premier League announced a price cap on away fans tickets at £30 for the next three seasons. Finally the fans' voices was heard.
People understand better than ever, their role in the value equation. The ticket price hike was only worth £2M and there were probably less corrosive ways to increase revenue. Football fans can organise fast. They know how to use social media and their communities. Fenway had the good sense to respond fast. The supporters of Charlton, Blackpool & Leeds are still waiting.
Most brands are not compelling enough to have fans. They will not have customers who care enough to stage a conversation. Most brands will just get a silent walkaway. As the tools of social media become easier to use these speedy and sophisticated campaigns will become more common. People are now more than aware of their value as advocates and detractors. They will dramatise how institutions, organisations and brands work both ways. Watch the tell tales, they show you the way the wind is blowing. Goodwill and reputation are fragile. When customers, users, supporters or citizens do not feel like part of the equation the feedback is going to get noisy.
Meanwhile someone at FSG has quietly adjusted the corporate website, it now reads: “Transforming consumers into fans.” Perhaps the beginning of a beautiful friendship.