As fans around the world unite to watch the 2018 World Cup (and fall apart over whether to call it “football” or “soccer”), we’re witnessing a unique lesson in loyalty. For supporters of countries like Italy, the Netherlands, Chile, and the United States that didn’t qualify for this year’s big dance, it’s a lesson that’s hopefully once-in-a-lifetime.
For big brands and marketers, however, the storylines of this year’s tournament go beyond the usual sports analogies. They speak to some fundamental truths about fandom and customer loyalty that make it too perfect an opportunity to pass up. Footy lover or not, there are valuable insights to be had by following the action on and off the pitch.
Even without watching a game, you may have caught arguably one of the best commercials coming out of this year’s tournament. It came from Volkswagen, whose campaign invites disenfranchised U.S. fans to “Jump on the Wagen” – choose a side, and join the fanbase of one of the other countries making their way in the group stage.
This ad is effective because football fans see themselves in the teams they cheer for. We are American, and therefore we root for the U.S. But perhaps you enjoy matches that are beautifully played, with foot skills at the forefront. Why not jump on the bandwagon for Brazil, and cheer on the “joga bonito” – the “beautiful game”? It’s the opposite of the U.S. (known for efficiency and how it dominates with athleticism), but if you’re watching for the love of flare and style, Neymar and ‘The Green and Yellow’ might catch your eye.
For marketers, helping customers see themselves reflected in a brand is key. And that doesn’t mean just putting their name on an email or letting them earn points for purchases. Customers want to know that what’s valuable to them is also valuable to you. It’s a deeper kind of personalization that’s about more than just pre-set, surface-level interactions.
One team that has made a serious effort to go beyond surface-level this year is England. After years of disappointing performances at tournaments, England’s players have been understandably reticent to engage with the public. The relationship between players and fans devolved to the point where star player Wayne Rooney, after a 0-0 draw with Algeria in the 2010 World Cup, ranted to a nearby camera: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”
This year, The English Football Association is working a whole new approach, putting its squad back in the spotlight and adding that softer touch. The players have made more public appearances and stepped up their social media presence, letting the public see their personalities, their struggles and ultimately how much they care about the game.
This personal touch and inside access are exactly what loyal followers crave. They’re giving you their time and money. Why would you keep them at arm’s length? Customers want their favorite brands to have a voice, but also to be accessible and human when they interact.
Those that have been watching the group stage probably know how it works by now. There are eight groups of four teams per group, but only two teams will advance from each group. The teams that advance are determined by having every team play a match against the other three teams in their group once, getting three points for a win, one point for a draw, and zero points for a loss.
There are other nuances to the scoring system, but the lesson is this: Following a single team doesn’t give you the full story. You need to know how all the matches (or at least all the ones in the group you care about) are going in order to know where your favorite team stands. Furthermore, you can’t get overly confident just because you won your group in the early stage. Quality can’t be determined until you play Spain, Germany, Belgium, or Brazil. Beating up on South Korea or Sweden is a long way from knocking out a heavyweight. That “total view” is the context you need to determine your real standing.
In marketing, there’s a similar challenge. Having one data point isn’t enough. You might know your customer came in on Monday at 7am. You might know they bought a large iced tea. You might know they spoke to customer service on Tuesday. But you have to be able to put all those points together – perhaps apologize for Monday’s botched credit card charge by surprising them with a free large iced tea when they come back the following Monday, as they do every week. That type of relationship comes from orchestrating information to understand a customer, rather than just having one or two of their data points.
Teams missing out on this year’s World Cup have sadly come with a price. Early numbers suggest that viewership is down as much as 87 percent compared to 2014. But although the sheer mass isn’t there, one thing is for sure – those that are watching are at the core of football’s target market. U.S. soccer lovers may not have skin directly in the game, but the ones that are watching are still watching because they have loyalty to the sport.
Many brands make the mistake of catering to audiences broadly, rather than homing their efforts on their core. We’ve said it here before – loyalty should be an outcome, not a strategy. For every World Series fan missed, there’s a World Cup fan ready to cheer twice as hard in their place. Marketers have a lot of ground to gain by giving back as much as their brands’ “fans” put in.
It turns out the sports analogies still have something to teach us after all.
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