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If sports clubs were like most companies, their slogan would be ‘We Play Football’. But their relationships with their fans go far deeper. So what can we learn from them about how to create a brand identity?

I watched the Liverpool vs Atletico Madrid Champions League match last night and was struck by how many times the media (and fans on social media) regurgitated some pretty well-known statements and ideologies about the two clubs… none of which were specifically related to the actual kicking of balls that happened on the pitch.

They spoke about how Liverpool are “Mentality Monsters”. About how their manager Jürgen Klopp famously stated his quest to turn fans from ‘doubters into believers’ when he signed for the club a few years ago. After the game, the club’s home stadium ‘Anfield’ was trending on Twitter as people invoked the ground’s legendary atmosphere, explaining how that could play a part in the result of the second leg.

When speaking about Atletico, they did so in terms of the club’s fabled identity, much of which is borne out of their historic comparison to Madrid’s other, richer and more successful club, Real. In Diego Simeone – so the commentators told us – they have a manager who is the living embodiment of the metaphorical chip on the shoulder that the club, collectively, has.

And, on hearing those tropes repeated over and over, it got me thinking about how they’re all examples of what we might call in marketing circles, each club’s brand, their corporate identity or their value proposition.

In marketing, we create brands, identities and value propositions to mark companies as being distinct from their opponents. On the surface of it, one clothing brand is the same as all the others. Except that Nike cater to those who ‘Just Do It’. In a different industry, Apple represent those who ‘Think Different’.

These taglines and the way they’re manifested in both company’s actions and advertisements help their customers to develop an emotional connection to the brands. To feel like – regardless of the better price, features or availability of other brand’s products – we will continue to buy those brands time and again simply because we trust them. In both cases, customers will even have the brand’s logos proudly displayed because they’re seen as status symbols. People proudly show off their Airpods and Air Jordans.

It’s exactly the same thing in sport where both Liverpool and Atletico are football teams. What they do is exactly the same – they play football – but How they do it and Why they do it are distinct to each other and, indeed, so many of the other teams out there.

This is important because establishing a brand, an identity or a value proposition in a sporting context helps the manager and owners to communicate what they want from their players and staff, that helps in bringing in the right people, that helps in simplifying the job for those players and staff such that they clearly know what to do and how to act in any given situation – both on the field of play and off it.

But it also helps because it allows the clubs ‘customers’ – it’s fans – to form a bond with that team. To feel represented by it. To feel like they belong to that club’s ‘tribe’. And if you don’t believe that fans think about these things – just listen to the way Arsenal and Manchester United fans have been talking about their teams since Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson, respectively, left. How many times did you hear United fans complain that they weren’t playing ‘the United way’ under Louis Van Gaal a few years ago because they weren’t positive, they didn’t attack down the wings and they didn’t play with a swagger.

The reason Simeone was able to get the performance he did out of his players and the crowd last night was because they didn’t believe they were playing football. They felt that this was their entire being – who they are, what they stand for, the city in which they live, their relationships with friends and family, their grandparents’ legacies – that were on the line.

And it’s not impossible to recreate that sort of loyalty for brands. People tattoo Harley Davidson logos on their skin not because of the technical quality of their motorcycles but because of what the brand stands for to them – freedom, hedonism, the pursuit of the American Dream. People proudly show off their Airpods and Air Jordans.

What’s the take-away for businesses? Be more brand aware. Work out why your company was formed, what made the founders choose that as a way of making money above and beyond all the other things you can do for work. Find that and distill it into your corporate culture. Talk about it in your advertising. After all, as Simon Sinek says, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. And that goes as much for your employees as your customers.


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