Why you need to ask 'why?'

Monday 4th September 2017 at 9:43AM

In a survey I undertook in 2011, I asked fans of a top tier club how valued they felt. 99.9% took that at face value, separated out their deeper love for their club from their individual experiences and gave an answer. All except one fan. He (or she) said: ‘What a stupid question. I don’t want my team to value me. I’m here to value them!’

It’s an interesting answer, especially as it sheds some light on supporters’ traditional rejection of the term ‘customers’. For one part, as the person above succinctly articulates, ‘customers’ don’t generally provide a service to the product provider.  Furthermore, there’s also a suspicion that such perceived semantic shiftiness only has one aim: namely that your passion for this club is only of interest to us when it means we can shift more merchandise.

If we’re customers, then we’ll be handled by the marketing and sales department. If we win, expect a tidal wave of ‘buy a shirt with the name of the wastrel who’s finally scored a goal for us on the back’ emails. If we lose, expect silence.

When I wrote this blog originally, Hull City fans were being asked to accept an apparently proven principle of marketing: the shorter and more memorable the name, the more commercially successful the organisation will be. So, try shortening Dixons. It doesn’t work (unless you feel the resultant name better expresses the level of service they used to provide). 

Hull City’s owner clearly believed that the Tigers’ fan base is more likely to respond as customers, rather than lifelong supporters who might forget the club’s name if it were to be longer than two syllables. Heaven help Borussia Monchengladbach (were they not already supporter-owned).

The problem is this.  Too many club owners have a clear understanding of ‘what’ football is. They just keep forgetting to ask the question ‘why?’.

The irony, of course, is that the world’s most successful businesses are characterised by immensely powerful ‘brands’, built on a detailed and sophisticated understanding of their customers’ motivations, expectations and behaviours.  They ask the question ‘why’ continuously, even when their products are no more than every day commodities.

Starbucks, for example, just sells coffee, but it’s built a brand that’s become a global phenomenon, based on data that has told them people want to sup sweet warm badly-prepared milk-based drinks in a fair-trade themed environment with a soundtrack of warbling nu-folk minstrels and cakes that cost a fortune. Well, that’s what it’s like at our local motorway franchise at least.

As I’ve argued before, Starbucks would love to own a football club, because their starting point there wouldn’t be just a commodity, but a deeply emotional concept that represents (often only after their families) the most important heartbeat in many people’s lives. Imagine what they could do with that. They’d probably noticed you’ve ‘checked in’ to their stadium vicinity before the game. They’d send you a message to your smart phone telling you that two of your Facebook friends are in block D today and you could upgrade by answering ‘yes’ to join them. That already happens at Sporting Kansas City, by the way, venue of the MLS final around the time I wrote this original piece.  

Starbucks takes the commodity and turns it into an experience.  Football has a tendency to do the opposite. It takes the most beautiful thing in the world and turns it into a ticket, a shirt and a programme, when it means so much more to people.  In these circumstances doesn’t it make sense to ask ‘why?’, find out what the club means to its different supporter groups, start to separate out the strands of the club’s DNA, distil some values and work like a brand to build the business?

Both Seattle Sounders and Borussia Dortmund operate ‘brand wheels’ which encapsulate their clubs’ core values, key beliefs and enduring principles. These concepts guide both clubs in their decision-making and ensure that anything – everything – that is done reflects what they believe the club stands for. And they can do that because they have engaged with their ‘customers’, asked them what the club means to them and had them road test the values by giving feedback on their experiences. Put simply, they’re working with stakeholders – equal partners in the sense that really matters.

Middlesbrough FC created a set of values a few seasons back after consulting their fans: honesty, respect and humility. As someone who lived in the town for a couple of years, I can identify with those words. But what’s interesting is how these beliefs have tangibly affected and improved supporters’ experiences at the Club over recent seasons.

In the hugely popular Generation Red Family Zone, in amongst the fantastic range of activities and entertainment for kids, sits a bright red bucket marked ‘Honesty Flags’. As the sign on the bucket explains, kids (and their parents) can take these flags, wave them in support of their team, write their names on them, but return them to the bucket so that other kids can use them.

And the more the club learns about what matters to kids, the more the ways they find to delight them. One little girl, on attending her first match at the Riverside (circa 2013), sat quietly looking downcast (it was Boro, after all). When her Dad asked what was wrong, she said ‘there are no tiaras’. She’d naturally assumed that if this were a place for kids, then she’d be able to dress up. She can now.

These innovations were already up and running back in 2013. They’ve considerably expanded since, they don’t depend on whether Boro are doing well or not and they’ve become part of ‘the way (we) do things’ at the Riverside Stadium.

When Ana and I first began our footballing odyssey, what struck me as most attractive about the experience – seeing the different grounds and learning about what made them special – was something that my wife, as a new supporter, couldn’t see at all. She used to describe the experiences as ‘same song, different lyrics’ and that somehow, to her, perfectly described the sense of ‘sameness’ she felt as we travelled around, when she was expecting something different. 

Having endured my love of Sunderland AFC over the years, but attended few matches, she expected to see and feel something of each club’s identity when she visited each stadium.  Unfortunately, with the honourable exception of Liverpool, she felt that most clubs were missing an obvious opportunity.

When clubs engage with supporters with the question ‘why?’ (and resist the urge to include a link to purchase the new away shirt) what emerges is a stronger, more informed sense of identity and that can only be a good thing.  In our 16 years of experience, one thing matters: sustainable growth (either at association, league, club or grass roots level) only happens when the difference in motivation between supporters and customers is understood and built into culture and strategy. So, if we don’t ask the question why, we’re choosing to fail.

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