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  • Nick Bonney

Kicking the Habit - Why Football's PPV Own Goal Should Be A Lesson To Us All

The concept of people holding deeply emotional relationships with brands has become somewhat twisted and overblown over the past few years as concepts like brand purpose seemingly took on a life of their own. As researchers, we’re probably as guilty as anyone of amplifying this problem as, in our quest to move research participants beyond rational, ‘face-value’ responses, we’ve devised ever more creative ways to try to understand just what makes someone select one brand over another. However, whilst creating emotional associations are key at ‘the top of the funnel’ are many brands still missing an open goal when it comes to that elusive conversion at the 'bottom of the funnel'?


One of the refreshing things about the Byron Sharp school of thinking is that it recognises the importance of habit and the role that both mental and physical availability play in building and sustaining it. Personally, I buy Colgate not because I buy into their brand purpose (although apparently they’re “building a future to smile about”) but because it was the toothpaste my parents bought when I was a kid and frankly I have other things to worry about than studying the nuances of the toothpaste fixture. Behaviourally I’m as loyal as they come but that doesn't mean I want to have a ‘relationship’ with my toothpaste brand.


Nowhere is the sense of an emotional connection with a brand more deeply entrenched than in the world of football. The late, great Ken Parker and his wife Trish wrote a fantastic paper for the Market Research Society Conference over 20 years ago where he referred to ‘The West Ham Syndrome’ (i.e. the symptom of supporting a team even if frankly they’re a bit crap – sorry Hammers fans). In their paper they identified that 58% of supporters had selected their ‘brand’ by the age of 11 – just like me and toothpaste, a habit formed early and not easily broken.


Now Ken was a wonderful man and a brilliant researcher to boot but sadly his deep love of Tottenham Hotspur made him very misguided in the football stakes. His research though was bang on when it came to fans and the passion they hold for their team. My own connection with another London club goes back over 30 years to the late 70s when frankly they too were a bit crap and a young, swashbuckling captain named Ray Wilkins was the only bright spark against the drab backdrop of a crumbling Stamford Bridge. Concerned by stadium closures and coverage of football violence, my dad did everything to try to break the bond, refusing to take me to The Bridge and even trying desperately to get me to follow a more ‘family-friendly’ club by taking me to Vicarage Road.


Bowl Cut? Tick! Black and White Football? Tick! Photo Copyright: My Mum

I had a stubborn streak even then and refused to be shifted. The roller-coaster of the early 80’s (a game away from relegation one year, followed by promotion the next) sealed it for me and as soon as I was old enough to head into London myself, I’d travel to stand in The Shed with my mates. From Bolton to Baku, Moscow to Munich, I’ve been lucky enough to witness pretty much all the highs and lows ever since. Whilst family commitments mean I no longer travel home and away, football was still a massive part of my life. Indeed its grip was so strong that, whenever I dreamt of retiring abroad, one of the biggest things barriers I could foresee was ‘how would I get to the football?’


The last six months have therefore been a bizarre thought experiment for us match-going fans as the pandemic has led to the closure of football grounds up and down the country and Saturday afternoons no longer involve the trip to the game. Undoubtedly I’ve missed the buzz of attending a big game and, I’m sure when we’re finally allowed back in, the hairs on the back of my neck will stand up like I’m a teenager all over again. However, at the same time I’ve also come to value the time to do other things without the obligation of feeling I should be there ...are those long-held habits starting to wain?…


Even in such an emotion-laden category as football, loyalty it seems is also driven by habit and ritual. To use marketing terminology, whilst I would never switch ‘brands’, it is possible to see my purchase frequency decline, especially if needless barriers are put in the way. At a time when many households are struggling and when they were being offered an 'inferior product experience', it was therefore a staggering decision to see the Premier League clubs choose this time to try to fleece their supporters by charging supporters £14.95 to watch their team on a pay-per-view basis (on top of already expensive TV subscriptions). At a time when as ‘brands’ they should be reaching out any building connections with their ‘customers’ they chose short term profit instead.


If ever a supporter was in any doubt as to how their club views that much-fabled ‘emotional connection’, it was summarised in that one simple transaction - one party gives, and the other one takes. Understandably, it has proved a spectacular own goal. Viewing figures have been miniscule and the clubs have been forced into an embarrassing U Turn. Meanwhile football supporters have raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for local foodbanks off by donating their PPV fee and have found even more creative ways to share how to watch their team on illegal streams.


As the hashtag #boycottPPV spread across social media one could be forgiven for thinking this was simply yet another PR disaster for the football hall of fame but the implications go much wider than that. For the match-going supporter, creating even greater barriers to see their team every week starts to erode those habits built up over years if not decades. Whilst club chairman may not care about match day revenues anymore (matchday income has gone from contributing 43% to 13% of Premier League clubs’ revenue), they certainly do care about the golden egg which is the broadcasting contract. However, the short term money grab of PPV has pushed the price to a point where even the most law-abiding armchair fan may be asking their teenager for the URL of that streaming site or learning how to use a VPN.


Palace Fans Show Their Displeasure

For my own part I have had not one e-mail from the football club with whom I’ve had a season ticket for over 25 years. Complete radio silence. Whilst digital initiatives have continued to reach out to fans from across the world to build engagement at the top of the funnel, the lack of communication to those who already have a relationship has been palpable.


For institutions woven into the fabric of society, football clubs have long been known to be weirdly isolated from the real world and more than capable of committing marketing hara-kiri whenever the mood takes them (e.g. the recent Leeds United badge debacle). However, it never ceases to amaze me how many other brands across a whole range of categories are creating similar ludicrous barriers at a time when they should be working harder than ever to make it easy to do business with them. The financial pages will be strewn with Covid horror stories next year as brand after brand release their trading results but, to use a football metaphor, many still seem to be missing open goals.


As a personal illustration just in the past week, I’ve experienced these bizarre barriers for purchases both big and small – from the car dealership who (understandably) had to cancel a test drive during lockdown but didn’t contact me to do so and has made no effort to re-arrange it, through to the supermarket who says you can’t add gravy to a Christmas food order? Both these brands are simultaneously spending millions on building emotional brand building campaigns at the top of the funnel whilst throwing away cash at the other end. A bucket leakier than that early 80’s Chelsea defence (with the exception of Mickey Droy obviously).


So by all means let’s celebrate the wonderful creative ideas that the marketing industry can develop especially at this time of year but let’s also make sure that they are backed up by doing the simple things right. It’s those small gestures which are often so crucial to cementing repeat purchase behaviour…


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