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Why Brands Should Take a Fan-Approach to Connect With Their Customers

By Tom Dougherty, Chief Growth Officer, UNRVLD


There’s no doubt that fandom is a lucrative business. A study by the Lending Tree predicted that sports fans shelled out an average of $664 last autumn, with 33% of fans expecting to take on debt to do so. But, with only 3 in 10 consumers describing themselves as fans of their favourite brands, it seems there are a few tricks that the retail industry could learn from sports organisations on creating more engaged and loyal customer bases.


The kind of loyalty and sense of belonging that sits between a football club and a die-hard fan is one that any brand dreams of building with their customers. While retail brands may not have fans that bathe themselves in their colour palette or shun supporters of rival brands, there’s a lot that can be said for brands treating their customers more like sports fans. The digital age has transformed the way fans engage with sports and sports brands have been quick to adapt to the changing landscape. By leveraging digital platforms, sports brands have been able to build deeper connections with their fans online to create a loyal community of global supporters. Here are some key lessons that retail brands can learn from how sports brands leverage digital platforms to build fanatical customer bases.


1. Focus on a direct-to-consumer proposition

In today’s world, asserting share of voice amidst a myriad of third parties is a challenge in any sector. For sports organisations – developing a direct-to-fan (D2F) offering is essential in order to co-exist with rights holders and tech giants. By creating a D2F channel, sports organisations gain more control over the fan experience and more importantly, they gain control over fans’ data. This owned, first-party data, behavioural and transactional, is a sports organisation’s biggest asset. With it, organisations can facilitate unique content personalisation at scale, tailoring their marketing efforts to each individual fan to strengthen the relationship even further. Fans can create their own accounts, follow specific teams or players and receive personalised recommendations based on their interests. In the same vein, retail brands must also place more emphasis on building the best first-party digital experience possible, ensuring they turn one-time customers into loyal fans.


Investment in technology can support this ambition. An owned direct-to-consumer (D2C) channel is a good place for brands to start, allowing their customers to engage and transact directly with them. A customer data platform (CDP) sits at the heart of this D2C channel, building a ‘single customer view’ of each user which is updated on each visit, allowing for smarter decision-making. On repeat visits, brands can personalise their marketing and product offerings to individual customers based on their past purchase history, preferences and behaviour. As a result, customers feel listened to by their favourite brands, building loyalty and keeping them coming back for more.


2. Build an authentic experience

A D2C channel also grants brands greater control over how their products are presented and sold to customers. No longer tied to wholesalers and department stores, brands can create an authentic customer experience which is aligned with their values and messaging. This idea of building a sense of authenticity, history and story is a tactic widely used to bolster sports fandom. Often rooted in generations of familial affiliation, sports fans have a sense of emotional connection to their clubs that runs deeper than most. The way sports brands manipulate but respect this tie through their digital presence is key to not only growing but also retaining a fanbase. The fan lives at the heart of a sports organisation and as much as fans identify with their chosen team, said team must also identify with its fans – giving them a real stake in what the club represents.


At UNRVLD, we worked with Crystal Palace F.C. to embed the club’s striking brand personality in their digital brand expression with a slick new website and app. The experience is both compelling and authentic for Palace’s loyal fans around the world, unwavering from their South London and Proud values throughout. Brands too must clearly define their values, creating an online brand narrative that resonates with their target audience. With 63% of consumers saying they only shop at brands with values that align with their own (Sitecore), creating a shared value system and threading this throughout your brand communications is essential. This humanises the brand, giving it a relevant personality that customers can connect with. By resonating with their customers, retail brands can create an emotional connection with them that goes beyond purely transactional value. The key to success here therefore is not only asserting unique brand values from the outset but also placing the target customer at the heart of your brand experience, encouraging loyalty through affiliation.


3. Foster loyalty through community

The affiliation that fans have towards their chosen sports team is strengthened by the strong community that connects groups of fans. This sense of belonging and comradery that comes with following a team is the cornerstone of sports fandom. While creating an organic community of a similar scale is unfeasible, there are ways that brands can foster a similar sense of togetherness to drive loyalty within their own customer bases. Take new market entrants such as Glossier – the direct-to-consumer beauty brand whose army of 2.7 million Instagram followers have blown up the beauty industry, leaving well-established brands on their knees. Glossier fostered a community through engagement on social media, partnering with influencers who have a strong following in their target market. This enables them to retain control over their brand image whilst widening their audience reach.


Once established, brands can enlist user-generated content from their loyal customers to engage their audience further in a community-powered marketing programme, while also giving fans the opportunity to connect with each other online. Branded hashtags for example work to promote a business while driving conversation between loyal customers. This shared sense of community can also be driven by personalised experiences that create emotional interactions and make individuals feel part of something bigger. Like in sports, customers in the retail sector love exclusive access. Retail brands can elicit a sense of exclusivity through digital loyalty programs and early access to new products, creating the space for communities to form. These value ad-activities build relationships with customers that drive better business outcomes in the long run, fostering greater brand loyalty that can ultimately drive fandom.


To remain competitive in 2023, retail brands will need to embed digital-first strategies within their business to ensure they build lasting relationships with their customer base. In a world where creating a unique product or service is far and few between, ensuring you provide the best digital experience for your customers is a must. With the rise of digital platforms, there has never been a better time for retail brands to learn from sports brands and take their customer engagement to the next level.


This article 1st appeared on Adverstisingweek.com HERE 

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