January 09, 2013

Win, Lose Or Draw: The Power Of Branding

While dawdling over a cup of coffee at a favourite restaurant on New Year's Day, I couldn't help watching the football updates on one of the large screens behind the counter.

Naturally enough, I was drawn towards those matches featuring either my own team (which is labouring mid-table) or the big teams at the top of the league.

I say 'my team' despite the fact that I'm not a Liverpudlian, nor have I ever been to Anfield. Still, Liverpool has been my team since a fateful day back in the early '70's, when the first collector's card I pulled from the packet outside the local sweetshop featured the imposing figure of one Tommy Smith who, my pal informed me, was captain of Liverpool and something of a legend. That was enough for me: Tommy Smith was to be my hero and Liverpool my team.

And so, I've followed them since then, and as you'd expect, I look to see how they're doing whenever there are reports on football. But perhaps more surprisingly on the first day of the year, I also found myself rooting for certain teams playing out fixtures that were unlikely to have anything more than mid-table outcomes. And really caring about the results!

I wanted to see Reading thump Tottenham (although they didn't), and Southampton frustrate Arsenal (which they did). I was sorry to see Norwich City trailing to West Ham United, and even sorrier to see Stoke City and Wigan Athletic suffering a mauling at the hands of the two Manchester giants. I was pleased to see Swansea City and Aston Villa play out a draw, as I didn't like to see either lose. In short, I found I had a stake in every one of the fixtures being played that afternoon.

As I lingered there, I was surprised at the strength of my feeling for and against a real mixed bag of teams from places that I've never been and, in many cases, know little about.  To my astonishment, I realised for the first time that I'd developed a quite complex set of allegiances based on little more than a passing knowledge of games being played hundreds of miles away in another country.

Of course, sometimes it was a fairly typical wish to see the giant slain by the journeyman; even better to watch the bitter rival of my team fall foul of the gallant underdog. But there was more to it than that. Unknown to myself, I had developed a fairly sophisticated hierarchy of allegiances, which enabled me - or even obliged me - to back the outcome of a game almost as though I had some real vested interest.

And it struck me that as a customer I'm much the same. I rarely feel indifferent to any of the products or services on offer in the marketplace. I want to see some succeed and some fail. I care about those brands for reasons that are sometimes clear and sometimes beyond me, the equivalent of my randomly opening a packet of football cards and choosing the first team to appear. My job, of course, requires me to make some sense of the allegiances of customers, but I still marvelled at how relatively complex my set of footballing loyalties had become, almost without my noticing.

Why do I prefer an unromantic team such as Reading over their stylish rivals Tottenham? On another day, I'd happily see Tottenham overcome Manchester United (even better if they achieved the unthinkable and thrashed them) and Reading beaten by Swansea. How do I tease out the not-so-obvious fealties that I have towards the twenty-two teams who make up the English Premier League, not to mention the many others dotted throughout the other European leagues who either attract or repel me in the same way? Real versus Barca, Celtic against Rangers, and so on...

In a sense, this is the task facing the business-owner, who must also try to make sense of the tangle of loyalties at work in the marketplace. Underestimating where the customer's loyalties lie leaves the shopkeeper vulnerable to the apparent vagaries of the economy (pick a card, any card), rather than master of their own fate.

For just as surely as I can trace my own affections for Reading back to a time when the team featured a number of Irish players, and my disdain for Tottenham back to their treatment of various managers who I admired, the business-owner can and must trace the likes and dislikes at work in their marketplace.

Otherwise, they'll miss the opportunities at play in their business, just as certainly as the casual observer might have missed the depth of feeling just below the surface of the man dawdling over his coffee in a restaurant on New Year's Day.

Over To You: What do you think? How important is brand loyalty to whether you win, lose or draw in your market?