Cultivating fandom: branding beyond the rational

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Illustration by Madison Schneider
Hero image
Illustration by Madison Schneider

At different points in my career I’ve been lucky enough to place sports at the center of my day job. Time at previous agencies included relationships with brands like ESPN, Nike, Adidas, and The North Face. More recently, I’ve led the strategy practice at Hornall Anderson, where we work with some of the world’s elite professional sports organizations – Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks, and the new Seattle hockey team joining the NHL in 2021.

The more I work on sports and entertainment brands, the more I realize that the irrational zealotry of fandom differentiates these brands from those in any other industry or category. When we talk about fandom, there are iconic team-and-supporter combinations that immediately spring to mind. The loyalty and depth of commitment in these relationships would be the envy of any brand in the world—but how does it happen? Where do these bonds come from and what makes them so special?

Newcastle United fans take pride in their raw, open support – starting a movement and trend to be not only rowdy, but shirtless.

While a relatively small market, Blazers fans simply show up. They’re wild but respectful, loud but smart about basketball, and while they haven’t won a championship in four decades, they consistently sell out Moda Center. Every game they pass a ball from the top of the stands to courtside before the game begins, an action that unites the fans and the team in a very literal way. Players in the Association know, Portland is a fantastic place to play, largely due to the energy, focus, and love of the fans.

Most recently, Atlanta really tapped into something remarkable when they opened the AUFC season in MLS two years ago. They set single season attendance records by averaging 48,200 people/game (including record-setting attendances of 70,000 and 71,000 during the season). They tapped into the multiculturalism of the city by making the team emblematic of unity and owning “underdog” status. And last year, to cap the remarkable Cinderella story, they won their first MLS Cup.

Love them or hate them, Blue Devils’ fans garner a lot of attention. It’s interesting to remember that while the student body changes from year to year, the rituals and their intensity do not.

As with all branding exercises, fandom begins with understanding what you hold as sacrosanct at the deepest levels of the organization. What are the values and certainties that constitute the organization’s operating system? In today’s Simon Sinek parlance, what is your why? Within the world of sports and fandom, this includes a strong knowledge of team and city history, of clarity around what you expect of yourselves and your fans (and what you won’t accept), and even a consideration of what sets you apart from the rest of the league, other than your geography.

The “12s” fans of the Seattle Seahawks believe that they are the loudest fans in the NFL. (NOTE: author is from Seattle.) They pride themselves on it. The loud and proud 12th Man fans for the Seattle Seahawks consider themselves an integral part of the game, if not actual members of the team, aiming to make enough noise to be measured with a Geiger counter and holding records for loudest stadium and forced delay-of-game penalties. Even when the team is struggling, that deep belief creates home field advantage that comes from the stands.

In truth, the more clarity you can create around who you are, what you stand for, and what you believe, the easier it is to draw together an active and engaged community of excited fans.

As you can see, it’s important to understand that fandom—whether centuries, decades or months in the making—is a unique shared experience between an organization and its supporters.

By researching existing relationships and helping create new ones, we’ve discovered that there are four essential elements underpinning any worldclass, iconic fandom:

Beliefs
Tribes
Language
Rituals

The four elements are instigated, encouraged, and participated in by both fans and organizations. There is a give and take in their development, a necessary symbiosis that establishes the significance of each of these elements of fan culture. Each plays its own part in setting the stage for shared experiences that take people to a place beyond the rational.  

Beliefs

Everywhere you go in Wisconsin, the Packers seem to be engrained and present. The Packers are a working class, tough love team. They like to say they don’t have one owner with $25M, but 25m owners each with $1. The season ticket wait list is now north of 130,000.

Tribes

This is about people. Cult-like people who are looking for something bigger than themselves to connect to in order to feel a sense of community and belonging. The easiest example of true tribalism rests with the Oakland Raiders. For many, the idea of hard-core fandom conjures images of these folks, who wear the moniker of the NFL’s most notorious fans with pride. Emerging from the biker culture of the 70’s, the Black Hole seemed to be reflected on the field during the John Madden era of tough guys and gritty play.

Not all tribes have to elicit fear, but for all teams or cities, this must begin with understanding and defining what do we stand for, and who are the kinds of people we want to be a part of that? Within that framework, a question exists in how to attract and draw the multitude of subcultures and neighborhoods within a geography to buy into the team. In some cases, tribes can be built around the notion of a rivalry. Rivalries can be built around geographic battlegrounds, historic competition, or other shared moments or sense of lines being drawn. Many teams must be willing to ask themselves—who are we not for?

Language

How we speak and what we say within and among our TRIBES are part and parcel of the power of shared LANGUAGE. Whether it’s the team’s star QB dedicating the game “to the Twelves”, or a group of people, no matter where in the US they live, calling themselves “Dub Nation,” or even the whole world agreeing that a certain 37ft left field wall should be referred to as the “Green Monster,” the LANGUAGE of fandom can be potent and deeply meaningful. It’s about capturing a personality, an attitude. It is true of the vernacular of everyone within the organization, from the front office to the grounds crew; from those on the field to those in the cheap seats.

Rituals

Shared behaviors and actions bring TRIBES together in the name of the team, in moments of connection between players, an organization, and the people who actively support them. RITUALS create a common sense of identity. They are the actions that go beyond mere slogans or marketing materials. They speak volumes. Or sometimes without volume.

A great ongoing ritual resides with Taylor University’s annual “Silent Night” game. For those unfamiliar, the NAIA school from Indiana, hosts an annual game on the final Friday night before finals, in which the students dress up in the most insane costumes they can (doesn’t matter if it has anything in common with the Trojan, their mascot). The crowd remains dead, I mean dead silent until the team scores its 10th point of the game, and then all heck breaks loose. It is a small piece of insanity that has been passed on from student body to student body, from year to year. It connects the team to the community and the community to the team. And that is at at the heart of proper fan-based rituals. The idea of rituals in this case is more about more organic and genuine moments of togetherness – perhaps built around pre-existing or long-standing traditions. rituals are truth through shared action. They cannot be overestimated.

For sports teams and organizations considering new stadiums, sales centers, community outreach programs, marketing, or other fan-based efforts, understanding these four elements is the key to developing a fan base that is passionate and loyal, as well as one that spends its money on jerseys, memorabilia, season tickets, and concessions. I’ve mapped out some of the cursory questions and rationalizations that give these components color and meaning. But creating original, truthful, and inspiring definitions to a team’s brand requires the same commitment it takes to bring a championship home to the city.

If you’re hungry for more, give us a call. We’re here to help you win.

 

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