Sports as Brands

Dan Johnson

Former Director of Communications, Premier League

Some years ago, the Premier League was asked to enter an industry award category as ‘Brand of the Year’

Some years ago, the Premier League was asked to enter an industry award category as ‘Brand of the Year’. We were quite taken aback to be seen in the same category as some of the biggest brands in global sport – the likes of Nike and Adidas – hugely successful companies who have marketed lifestyles, movements and values as well as running shoes and training kit.

The other reason we were sceptical about accepting the invitation to enter a brand category is because football clubs, leagues, and associations are phobic about the “b” word. The rogue deployment of “brand” – explicitly or implicitly – from a football suit can solicit an extreme reaction from fans, some of whom deride the commoditisation and commercialism associated with modern football.

But is the concept of being a brand such a terrible thing? The power of brands to inspire and engage is universally recognised. The ability to hold brands to account for everything from customer service (or fan engagement as we would have it) to their commitment to CSR has never been greater, as the stinker of a letter to a faceless department has been replaced by an acerbic social media post for all to see, with a call to action that lands in the mainstream media.

Should sports be reappraising themselves in the context of brands? Being clear on what you stand for and why; explaining why you engage in a broad range of activities, not just cataloguing them; connecting with the full-range of fans, from hardcore to connected, but not yet committed, in an open and conversational way is crucial for sports brands.

 

Children in a premier skills workshop, which uses football as a tool to engage with and develop the skills of young people

The same issues present themselves for modern brands as sports – relevancy, transparency, potency and accessibility.

At the Premier League we tackled this head on. It is not that we suddenly woke up to the fact that we needed to stand for these things; many of the elements that prove our brand attributes are activities central to what we and our clubs have been doing for years. Two of the stand-out programmes, Premier League Kicks and Premier Skills, have just turned ten years old.

However, the way we celebrated these was not with a blizzard of statistics, but individual, human stories.

Premier League Kicks is a social inclusion programme that uses the pull of club coaches and associated activity to target young people at risk of offending in key crime hours and areas – providing not only football sessions, but other activities like music and dance, as well as links to education and employment services. It has had a positive impact on tens of thousands of young people’s lives. However, the best way to get across the overarching narrative that Premier League Kicks improves young people’s lives is to tell their stories. The device we chose is personal and creative; getting clubs to nominate their Kicks Heroes and then bring their stories to life through animation. It has been a great success with clubs and the media really bought into it, which then allows us to sell in the scale of what the programme has achieved with secondary and tertiary messaging.

 

Similarly, the tenth anniversary of Premier Skills – the lead international programme, which runs across 26 countries and delivers coach education and English language skills in conjunction with the British Council – was marked with a photography exhibition. The exhibition brought together strong, beautifully shot images conveying the reach, impact, and emotion of what the programme has achieved so far, as well as the legacy left in those countries.    

The above examples perhaps speak to the “surprising truths” about the Premier League, yet at the same time they are central to what the organisation stands for. The recent work that has been done around developing a new visual identity, tone of voice and values are essential to how the Premier League continues to develop as a sporting competition and as an organisation.

“Football clubs leagues, and associations are phobic about the b-word”

The increasing equity of reputation and what people want their choices in life to say about them – whether it’s the car they drive, what media they consume or what football team they support – is fundamental to the future success of businesses.

People want to feel good about their choices even if it is the case, as it is in football, that those choices are limited – who you support is often a quirk of birthright or geography. The depth and commitment of support can vary wildly though. Clearly, we want to remove as many barriers as possible to whole-hearted commitment.

The launch of Premier League Primary Stars this season was the biggest social intervention programme beyond football participation. The aim of the programme is to make the Premier League and its clubs even more relevant to primary school kids, their parents and teachers through the delivery of educational resources and training for P.E. teachers. The ambition is to be in every primary school in England and Wales by 2022. This is matched by the desire to have an impact that meets the needs of pupils, teachers, and parents. The Premier League wants to be able to have a different type of conversation with those who are connected to us but not, as yet, fully committed. 

 

The power of the Premier League reaches millions across the world

The Premier League has grown to become a central part of British culture. People refer to something that is good as being of “Premier League standard”. The breadth of society that expresses an interest and a knowledge of Premier League football is expanding rapidly and it is increasingly used as the nation’s bellwether on key social issues such as the Living Wage, disabled access and the equalities agenda. It is fortunate that the organisation not only recognises its responsibilities in these areas and others, but that the clubs recognise its ability to do the right thing and help affect change.

Football is not immune from the significant social forces currently at play. The sport needs to consider the impact of social media consumption, piracy of content, time-poor individuals and families, and the rise of alternative leisure activities. Putting forward who the Premier League is – and what it stands for – in a considered, structured and consistent way is critical to continued success.

It is time we accept that the Premier League is a brand that can use the breadth of its recognition in society to effectively communicate its values to a global audience of millions.