Lessons from Leeds … How To Avoid a Sports Fan Backlash

It’s a tough time for the famous Leeds United Football Club!

They’ve just spent 6 months on designing & researching a new badge, with a sample of 10,000 + people. including “digital surveys, one-on-one and group interviews and meetings with legends, current players, club staff, the owner, partners and representatives from the Leeds and Yorkshire communities.” http://www.bbc.com/sport/football/42803838

The reasons for the change include a 100 year milestone, “the abbreviation (of the old logo LUFC) rather than spelling out Leeds United in full contributes to the crest being unrecognisable. We wanted to say who we are with pride: We are Leeds United”, and “it is also clear that the current crest represents a turbulent and largely unsuccessful period in the club’s history.” All very reasonable and logical, wouldn’t you say?

But, ironically, the new logo publicity includes the text ‘Celebrating Fans At The Heart Of Our Identity’, when over 50,000 of them have now signed a petition to stop implementation.

Pressuring the under-siege Managing Director to admit that “the learning from today is that the consultation has not been deep enough … we need to go back to those discussions.” As well as announcing a new competition for fans to submit their ideas for designs.

Leeds proposed logo

The rebranding was initiated in good faith by management, but turned into a nightmare. A painful reminder of how relationships with passionate fans are a minefield at the heart of not just sports, but any entertainment brand.

I know from hard experience in radio what its like to change a star commentary-caller, breakfast show, talkback host or music format, triggering a flood of complaints. Especially when it was out of your control, like talent being poached by a competitor, and no fan consultation was possible.

And in general market research it’s notoriously difficult to predict future behaviour, in a theoretical ‘what if?’ scenario. Same with designing a new media brand and attempting to project audience share & revenue.

People can only tell you how they reacted in the past or present. But not how they’ll behave in future, because there are too many variables in play … like category or competitor activity … and our basic human psychology of not truly feeling a theoretical change in our gut, until it actually happens.

Here are three key actions that can tap fan relationships to help at least soften the blow of change. And on a practical day-to-day basis, keep VIP fans in the loop, and gather valuable insights along the way.

Relationships, as in ‘real-life’, thrive on continuous nurturing and feedback. They don’t go well when neglected, and only top-of-mind at times of drama and crisis-management.

1. Give Your Fans a Regular Voice

This doesn’t mean the chaos & wastage of social media, where there’s a lot of random, public shouting. But little practical benefit to either the fan or the club, as a productive conversation. Instead, consider some kind of advisory forum, that can facilitate a more personalised private, 2-way interaction.

Bringing fans into a more structured, ongoing dialogue has insights benefits, as well as building a long-term relationship. They can help with decision-making, even just at an exploratory early stage to narrow down options.

Or fill in a more detailed picture of their lifestyle, attitudes and motivation to create segmented personas or avatars for more targeted marketing. Get to know your real competition for their discretionary entertainment time and spend.

2. Give Your Voice of the Fan Program a Human Face

We are wired to interact with other humans, not faceless brands. Sports fans have deep emotional love/hate bonds with star players and coaches, past & present.

Recruiting fan-advisers can be so much effective using a club hero as the ‘face’ of the campaign. Where they personally invite members to ‘make a difference’.

Allied to which, is a wonderful opportunity to offer ‘money can’t buy’ experiences with the stars as gift-incentives. Marketing people can often take privileged inside access to the club for granted, which to a member could be a lifetime memory. Not to mention the word-of-mouth shareability among their friends.

I’ve seen research quotes from radio listeners saying they have never, ever been to a live music concert. Which makes you want to just reach out and create a dream come true.

3. Give Your Fans ‘Shareback’

Again, a relationship only works with communication. Sharing with fans what you’ve learnt and actioned from your conversations, paves the way for a better mutual understanding when the going gets tough.

People love to be ‘insiders’, being ahead of the game on new initiatives and news. Newsletters are often the default, but regular personalised emails, especially from your ‘face’ are more powerful.

And inside news about other fans, and hard-working behind-the-scenes club staff, goes another step towards personalising the relationship. It’s a lot harder to be angry, and rant at a person you have empathy with, than a monolithic corporate brand.

The Takeaway

Change issues on the Leeds United badge scale, are thankfully few and far between, and you can only feel for the dilemma they’re facing in bringing their fans with them.

But it does reinforce the importance of keeping fans in the loop on both large and small issues, and humanising the relationship.

A wonderful summary is this quote from a Leeds fan in a comments post … “Many large, historic brands wouldn’t so quickly do a U turn in the way LUFC did – its a great demonstration of what all brands (regardless of industry) should be doing – listening to their customers/advocates/fans to shape their propositions and assets, especially when fan bases, like the one Leeds has, is so loyal. As a Leeds fan, whilst it made me cringe to see such an abomination, the way the fallout was dealt with gave me even more confidence that the club and the suits running it are the right people to handle my beloved Leeds.”

About the Author

Eriks Celmins brings a wealth of global experience in talking to media, sport & entertainment audiences, as a long-time research & content consultant.

Eriks runs both in-depth quantitative & qualitative research, including his innovative techniques for participant engagement.

He passionately believes in the power of conversation to build customer relationships, and help marketers gather fast, real-time insights.

Which you can now access on his new social-style, private chat-platform cliizii …

Customer Led Insights? Easy cliizii!

He is also a full Member of AMSRS (Australian Market & Social Research Society).

“I’m always open to exploring creative solutions to research challenges. Reach out to me personally if you want to hash out some ideas, or connect with me on LinkedIn”.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/erikscelmins/ eriksc@cliizii.com

Exclusive Insights into the Hearts & Minds of your Fans. That’s the cliizii Method!

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