How We've Used Our Collective Belief to Create the Perfect Brand
Following on from my previous blog about the importance of belief in branding, what I want to do now is look at a brand that has tapped into our collective belief to such an extent, that it has not only transformed the way we think and feel about a very ordinary pastime, but has helped define the culture of entire nations. And that brand is, or course, football.
Football is a really good example of an activity that has evolved perfectly in line with the evolution of people. Going back to the quote I took from Yuval Noah Harari’s book: ‘A brief history of humankind’ in my last blog, football requires participants to think sharply about abstract matters, cooperate in large numbers, and communicate with one another. It also allows followers to engage in never-ending gossip about its many characteristics. And football is such a good example of this, because the better we become at these things, the better we experience football.
But football started as a very simple, and very abstract, idea. Whether throwing things from one person to another was already part of a hunting technique, or a skill people had developed as part of their daily routines, I have no idea. But at some point, throwing things to one another became something we did for fun, rather than necessity. According to Wikipedia, “The Ancient Greeks and Romans are known to have played many ball games, some of which involved the use of the feet.” So not that much has changed. Football is just one example of a ritual that started with the Cognitive Revolution and has evolved in line with human evolution into what is now a highly complex sport. I’ve been watching Rugby Football for years and I still don’t really understand the rules.
Modern day Rugby Football started when a boy called William Webb Ellis, a pupil at Rugby School, "with a fine disregard for the rules of football, first took the ball in his arms and ran with it, thus creating the distinctive feature of the rugby game." One person had an abstract thought or idea, others liked it and copied it. Rugby Football is now a sport that is so embedded in our psyche that entire nations build their identities around it. When you think New Zealand; you think All Blacks. When you sit on an Air New Zealand flight, you’ll see a safety video presented by members of the All Blacks. Collective belief has led to cultural behaviour. When you think of Brazil, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? (OK, what’s the first thing that comes to mind after Copacabana Beach?)
Soccer has also been played since the mid-19th century. It’s now a global industry with thousands of teams each with their own distinct brand mark and unique identity. Forbes tells us: “Soccer attracts more corporate money than any other sport in the world; it's players attract over $250 million a year from sponsors. Of the $256 million the top ten star athletes earned last year, 43% ($111 million) was from endorsements from the likes of Adidas, Nike, Puma, Pepsi, and EA Sports. Figures include salaries, bonuses and endorsements.” So that’s other phenomenally successful brands feeding the success of other phenomenally successful brands.
Manchester United is the most popular football brand in the world. According to Sportek it has an average attendance at each game of about 75,000 people, but it has 65 million followers on Facebook; 7 million on Twitter, and is watched by about 1.75 to 2 billion viewers each year. So the proportion of people actually living near Old Trafford, who would have traditionally been the entire following, are now a tiny fraction of the total fan base.
So how did a very simple pastime evolve into a global industry that defines entire nations? The players on the pitch are still engaged in playing out complex scenarios based on those original abstract ideas created thousands of years ago, but it’s audiences no longer feel the need to participate or connect in the physical sense. Football has become so entwined with our culture, that’s it’s now second nature to follow and simply get emotionally involved. Now, almost every person in the world follows a football club and, more to the point, has complete belief in that club. Has this phenomenon happened because people like watching a group of people kick or throw a ball around a field? Or has it happened because, through branding the game, football has become a set of beliefs around which we are happy to gather – as if it were a metaphorical campfire on the African Savanna 70,000 years ago?
What football (and football in all its different codes) has done is create the ultimate brand experience – because it can be experienced in many different ways. The ‘content’ it delivers can be accessed at any time, through many different devices, regardless of location. Most brands represent a product or group of products that essentially stay the same with the occasional modification and upgrade. But football provides a never-ending stream of experiences, content and stories that change every day. It delivers joy, reward and gratification, with anguish and tension and in equal measure. An outcome can never be predicted (Leicester City and Portugal fans will confirm this) and so it manages to surprise and delight with every new development. It encourages daily interaction through a plethora of experiences, adventures, intrigue, love, loss and often disaster. But it keeps the audience entwined with every new twist and turn of the story.
And it delivers these experiences through just about every media known to man: TV, mobile phone, live commentary, pundit review and, yes, live performance. And if you’re really keen, you can even go to a shop, buy a ball and play the game yourself – though, of course, this is by no means compulsory!
Football now has a global community of followers whose collective belief verges on religious fanaticism.
Because the product changes every day it encourages live conversation, deliberation and conclusion on personal ideas that can be shared with a global audience. But it’s only possible thanks to four things: Collective belief in an abstract idea that has evolved into a brand; that delivers an ever-changing product; which provides us with new experiences, content and adventures; on a platform through which we can discuss, interact and, yes, ‘gossip’, within the local or global community, and on a daily basis. Sounds like the perfect brand to me.
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