Op-Ed: Why purpose-led partnerships are key to fan loyalty

09 Jul 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

Three years after launching his own nutrition company The Turmeric Co, former West Brom and Wales footballer Thomas Hal Robson-Kanu wants to see sports properties build fan loyalty by proactively working with more purpose-led sponsors and positioning the athlete as an 'ambassador' for physical and mental wellbeing.

During my youth, there was nothing I wanted more than to become a professional footballer. Growing up in west London, and starting out as an Arsenal schoolboy, by the age of 17, injuries threatened my dream. Seeing what it meant to be a professional and how the best players took personal fitness to a whole new level at the turn of the century, it was nothing short of an inspiration for an impressionable teenager. 

More than two decades have passed since I got my first taste of youth football, and my love for the sport hasn’t wavered. Since launching my own nutrition business in 2018, The Turmeric Co, alongside my ambitions as an athlete, I do however see an opportunity for the game to evolve off the pitch too. This includes the way football – aligned with all sports - positions itself as a vehicle for promoting health, wellbeing, and social enterprise among its fans.

While a second home to its community fanbase, in my opinion, football clubs now have a responsibility beyond the turnstiles. How it carries itself as a local business, and acts as a positive influence across its family of fans, counts for a lot. And that is also true of the brands with which it chooses to partner, especially at a time when football is more popular than ever and now reaches a global audience in its billions.

It’s clear that the game has moved a long way since the early days of pitchside branding and traditional shirt sponsors. Those still form an extremely important part of a club’s financial stability and growth, but brand advocacy among supporters is just as important to the team’s image today and should align with its star talent. I am personally beginning to see more clubs speak the same language around the advocacy piece and are putting it higher up the agenda. 

As a professional footballer, I have always valued the importance of good health in sport and its benefits for high performance and recovery. That was the pillar for The Turmeric Co when my father and I brought a new health drink to the market. We wanted to establish a product that was not only made from natural ingredients, but also added value to the teams we work with closely and the communities they serve, while also championing sustainable living.

Make no mistake, I take great pride in knowing that our company is actively promoting athlete health – but the key to a successful partnership, inside and outside of football, is also to engage with their loyal fans, and to position the professional as an ambassador for physical and mental wellbeing. In return, we have a chance to establish belief across the wider community in what we’re trying to achieve as a local, eco-friendly source of nutrition. 

For the game itself, the brand partnership, as we know it, has a chance to change the way clubs talk about health, wellbeing, and sustainability with their fans. While many have moved to monetise their ecommerce arm and have seen sport embrace the digital transformation around the fan experience, there are few that optimise their sponsorship deals in the same way which could in turn serve them well to build customer loyalty around the type of brands they welcome into the boardroom.

Purpose is a growing commodity for businesses. I’d argue that it has always been a part of their makeup; only that we are now seeing our leagues, clubs, and athletes being asked to do more today in the race against climate change and to raise greater awareness around mental health and personal wellbeing. To do this well requires a strong commercial footprint, whereby sport and its talent ask more of the brands they work with and, in turn, helps to grow a sponsorship portfolio that lives by their values.

Within football, The Turmeric Co is establishing itself as a reliable brand. Among our partners, we are supporting clubs up and down the English pyramid and have also branched into other elite sports, including top-flight rugby union, boxing, track and field and gymnastics. The sport industry is moving towards a platform for positive discussion around topics that impact, not only the athletes, but also the fans that follow their lead.

It means that, as a professional footballer, I also have a responsibility as a role model to the young, impressionable kids dreaming of playing in the Premier League or WSL, as well as the image we as sportspeople project to the fans who take an interest in what we do. 

So for us, when it comes to establishing the brand within football, it is vitally important that we support the health and recovery of the athletes we serve and present them with a product that they actively use in their daily routines.

Here lies the greatest opportunity for the football club: to attract sponsors which recognise the club’s ambition on and off the field of play and are willing to grow the partnership beyond the generic sponsorship deal. Ones that are motivated by brand advocacy among players and fans, all the while driven to make the lives of its customers a little bit better. 

Therefore, while fielding a team backed by likeminded, future-looking brands is growing more attractive to the club and the athlete, and customers are actively calling for more purpose-led companies. We should take this as an opportunity to ask ourselves what we’re doing to promote health and wellbeing in our roles as business leaders, and recognise the power of the brand in eliciting positive change among the communities our sports thrive on.