What’s your sport? A look at what a sport’s brand means to you

6 10 2011

What’s your sport? What is running, swimming or football? As a current, lapsed, potential participant, or as someone that never wants to do it, what do these sports mean to you? What does each sport’s brand stand for, in your eyes?

Strong brands are ones that create an emotional response in people. When you ask them what the brand is, they don’t reply with a list of functions and features. Instead they tell you about it’s benefits or how it’s relevant (or not) to them.

Growth comes from understanding the needs and expectations of the target customers you want to buy/use your brand – a strong connection with them often means a disconnection with others. Those who don’t engage deeply with a brand will usually dismiss it as “marketing hype”. And that’s the point about great brands, they divide opinion precisely because they are distinctive enough for people to have an opinion, as the varying eulogies to Steve Jobs have demonstrated.

Brands drive growth
Growth of the iPad, Starbucks, Manchester United, Ikea – each has invented or re-invented their category and achieved growth and success way beyond the wider market or what was considered normal. Each brand has their passionate followers with whom they deeply connect, and they have passionate detractors with whom they often disconnnect equally strongly. But that doesn’t matter – if you create something genuinely relevant and meaningful, it can’t be relevant and meaningful to everyone.

If you ask someone “what is Manchester United”, you wont get a list of features about ground capacity, employees or their upcoming fixture. Instead you’ll get a story about the role the team has played through someones life, the glory of a great victory, the thrill of watching great craftsmen at work. Or you will get the complete opposite – I’ll stop there before my inner Fulham fan takes over. But regardless of where you stand, its clear they’ve succeeded in growing the revenue and success of the club, by becoming a brand that people want to be part of and engaged with, both on and off the pitch.

The same dichotomy occurs if you ask people “what is Ikea” or “what is an iPad”. But all these brands have achieved stellar growth because their brand has deeply connected with enough people to drive it.

Branding and participation
So in terms of sports participation, my question is this, “what is sport?”. Or to make it more specific: “what is swimming, running or football?”

I chose these sports to get a mix of what gemba sports research call “franchise” sports (those where the number of fans vastly outweighs the number of participants) and “grass roots” sports (where the opposite is true).

The sport of football has a strong brand for spectators and sponsors, whether people and companies choose to engage with it or not. Likewise with the Olympics around the corner, the spectator brand for elite swimming and running will get more and more coverage – which will delight some and annoy others. But that’s why the Olympics works, if everyone cared then no-one would care. It creates a deep level of inspiration and excitement, because it connects with most people but not everyone. If every elite sport became relevant to everyone, they would be passionately relevant to no-one.

But what do any or all of those sports mean to you, as a current lapsed or aspiring participant? What does running, going for a swim or playing football mean to you? Does the idea thrill you or fill you with dread? Are you constantly trying to get friends to join in, or are you always planning to start playing it “tomorrow”? Are you looking forward to your next session, or is it something you keep saying you will do but probably never will (like I do about parachuting)?

Please add your thoughts in the comments below…

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