Digital and social channels give sport organisations the chance to build their brands globally and change their relationship with fans. Charlie Dundas, Commercial Director, YouGov Sport takes a look at the numbers behind one club who show that embracing social issues can be a powerful tool in growing a sporting brand.
Winning trophies is no longer the only factor in winning fan affinity. For teams who are successful on the pitch there is no guaranteed public affection. In a world of globalised sports rights, athletes as brands and social media, fans have become more discerning than ever.
One football brand which grasped this concept earlier than most is Serie A royalty, AS Roma who have earned themselves a reputation amongst sports marketers as a brand trailblazer.
The club’s idiosyncratic approach to brand building, especially on social media, has earned it a host of admirers. So we thought we’d pull together a data-led picture of the club’s success – and why the numbers tells that attitudes to football fans may be changing.
Across social is where AS Roma have made the biggest splash. And while follower numbers are strong (running at in excess of 17 million), it’s worth noting that the club has gone big on channels too. By our counting, the club now has 34 different social accounts, taking in 15 languages. It was even the first club to open a Pidgin account. Given its appetite for the new, it’s perhaps no surprise that the club was also the first Italian side to stream a first team match live on Twitter and the first to partner with Snapchat.
In addition to these channels, the club has also developed its own content brand. Roma TV and Roma Radio are both produced from the team’s training ground and, for Roman traditionalists, there’s the addition of an online magazine too.
Beyond content and channels,the Giallorossi’s efforts have also made a stir in the lifestyle and fashion world too. Their classic kit range, wolf logo-branded partnership with cult clothing brand Tokidoki and activation with Nowhere FC, for example, have all helped the brand to reach out beyond typical football audiences.
But while these initiatives are all at least noteworthy, it’s the club’s enthusiastic promotion of its social values which is perhaps the most eye-catching.
Not a corporate wolf
Despite its logo, the club is no corporate wolf. Indeed, perhaps its defining campaign for many outside of football has been its efforts to reunite missing children with their families.
The initiative, which sees player announcements paired with pictures of missing juveniles, has had a pretty spectacular impact on the brand metrics we collect every day on Italian football clubs. Roma’s Index score (a key brand health score which is a composite of six other metrics) increased by an incredible 33.6% the day following the campaign’s launch, peaking again in September when it was announced that five children who had featured in the initiative had been found safe.
Growing an international brand
The global market for sports rights means that for the top clubs, the world is their oyster. Indeed, most of the highest echelon of football brands now have offices strung around the world, and AS Roma is no exception - the club even has an outpost in Lagos.
But what does the data tell us? Let’s take a quick look.
First stop America – home of a large Italian diaspora and the focus of much of the club’s marketing.
Here’s one of the sixteen metrics we track on AS Roma every day – Consideration (which measures likeability).
Although it’s been pretty volatile, the overall trend for the club is strongly upwards since the start of last year, with scores doubling, giving us a sense of how its brand development work is paying off among this audience.
But what about further flung markets? Let’s look at Indonesia, a big football market which the Giallorossi last toured in 2015. Here you can find a number of other positive trends, including the one below, which charts Word of Mouth over the last calendar year.
Again, it shows a steady and significant uptick in score (and that’s including the recent football-free period), indicating that the brand is cultivating strong engagement in what is a very competitive football market.
So how does this kind of performance compare to those of other Italian giants, like Juventus and Milan?
Well, if we look at countries around the world, we can see that AS Roma’s fanbases place it firmly in this upper echelon of clubs and the table below shows fanbase size as a proportion of population in some key footballing markets. Wherever we looked, the club was amongst the teams with the biggest footprint in these foreign markets.
Building on a reputation
Returning back to Italy now, we wondered whether AS Roma’s CSR activities were a solid foundation on which to build the brand – or merely a neat flourish. Traditional and social media coverage have suggested that there is cut-through in activities like the club’s missing children campaign but is that reflected in the public opinion and attitude data that we collect from the public?
Our data tells us that AS Roma fans in Italy are much more likely to agree that it’s appropriate for sponsors to support community work in connection with a club (84% v 76% of the general population) and to agree that football clubs should do more to support the community (83% v 74%). What’s more, Italian fans of the Giallorossi are more likely to say they like brands which are willing to get involved in social issues (81% v 76% of the general population).
What this tells us is that a nice synergy exists between what the club and its sponsors are doing off the pitch and what their fans believe in. That’s a healthy place for both sets of stakeholders to be in.
The changing face of fandom?
All this progress for the brand raises the question of whether AS Roma is leading the way in finding a new segment of footballs fans or simply reflecting changes in the way that fans see the world.
This is an interesting question and one that our data can help answer. What do fans around the world feel about the responsibilities of brands on issues that have historically been the preserve of politicians and campaigners?
Well, German Bundesliga fans are no more likely than the general population to agree that brands (and we include football brands in this) should give their opinions on political or social issues. In the US, it’s the same case among both sports fans in general and soccer fans specifically (although with much lower percentages).
Similarly in the UK and in Japan - there is no divergence on this position between football fans and the general population. In fact, this is the case wherever we looked.
So it’s safe to say that football fans aren’t demanding greater social responsibility from their clubs, any more than the general public is of brands in general. Yet, there’s little doubt that AS Roma has been able to build a unique voice for itself in this space. So while the expectations of football fans may not have outpaced those of the general public, our data from around the world shows that there is a significant proportion of people in every market who welcome the idea of brands taking strong positions on social issues.
Does COVID-19 change everything for AS Roma and football?
Lastly, we wondered what effect COVID was having on AS Roma’s messaging and engagement at a time when the whole of the sport is struggling to find its voice.
Yet when we compared the Buzz around AS Roma to the average Buzz score for Italian clubs in Italy, we found that the club has consistently out-performed its peers since lockdown began. Again, we think this can be put down to the team’s social responsibility campaigning.
Widely publicised initiatives like the launch of its GoFundMe page for COVID-19 victims and deliveries of vital supplies around the city have helped to elevate its scores, while other clubs have struggled to create engagement and to cut through the COVID noise.
Perhaps it’s times like these when a unique voice like AS Roma’s is at its most persuasive and when most football fans will begin to recognise that.