Us v. Them: What We Can Learn from Sports about Branding
  by:  |  Mar 18, 2008

Sports teams might be the most unusual brand of all. Think about your favorite sports team. What image comes to mind? Your favorite player? A great game you once saw? How much you like their uniforms? Now think about what people who aren’t fans of your team think about when they think of your team. Inevitably, its the exact opposite of what you think about.

Due to the competitive nature of sports, successful sports teams have two different and distinct brands, the one their fans see and the one that their detractors see. Take the Duke University Basketball team, for example. Over at Newsweek, there’s a article on their sports blog about the team from the perspective of a Duke alumnus. The basic tenor of the article is that it isn’t Duke’s fault that everyone hates them for being successful. He describes the Duke program as “a relentlessly excellent, squeaky-clean program filled with good kids who play hard, go to class, never get in trouble and flop big-time as soon as they reach the NBA.”

However, ask someone who is not a Duke fan and they will strongly disagree with that statement.  For example, look at this interview quote from Will Blythe (who is dismissed in the Newsweek article as a “hater” who “spun his bile for a bunch of college students into serious money”):

I think it’s that Duke has become the embodiment of a public relations team. Duke’s rise happened to coincide with the rise of cable TV, the rise of ESPN and in particular Dick Vitale, who is the ultimate frontrunner. People began to take umbrage with the way the media had this reflexive description of “Duke is the preeminent program that is both academic and successful in basketball.” They started talking about the Duke players as if these guys were all young philosophers from 5th Century Athens. And they were just basketball players. People sensed the disconnect between that perception and reality, and it got on people’s nerves.

From this perspective, the brand Duke has formed for itself as being the perfect basketball program is a lie, created by the media.    The important point here is not whether the Duke program is a perfect program or not, but rather that there exists two such divergent viewpoints of the program.

Another great example is rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.  It’s arguably the preeminent rivalry in sports and the fans on each side hate the other.  The most recent salvo in the feud was Yankee executive Hank Steinbrenner’s quote about the existence of a “Red Sox Nation:”

“Red Sox Nation?” What a bunch of [expletive] that is,” he said in an interview with The New York Times’ Play magazine. “That was a creation of the Red Sox and ESPN, which is filled with Red Sox fans.

“Go anywhere in America and you won’t see Red Sox hats and jackets, you’ll see Yankee hats and jackets. This is a Yankee country. We’re going to put the Yankees back on top and restore the universe to order.”

The Red Sox are the defending World Series champions.   Like the Yankees, they are among the most financially successful rosters and among the leaders in attendance both at home and away games.  They are very popular and it is reasonably certain that Mr. Steinbrenner knows it.   But the statement (even if it is just calculated hyperbole) serves as an example of the type of irrational thinking that sports teams can engender.

So how does this translate to branding?  Because at its very core, sports fans are loyal customers.  The product they are buying, whether it is in a literal sense with tickets and merchandise or just by following and supporting them,  is their team.  What can be taken from this is that creating a competitive environment can lead to a greater customer loyalty.

For example, look at Apple’s  Mac v. PC commercials.   These are a classic example of creating a rivalry to engender brand loyalty.  Young actor Justin Long plays the Mac and he is shown as being hip and cooler than PC,  who is played by drab looking actor John Hodgman.  The concept of the commercials is to create loyalty in the Apple brand by emphasizing the rivalry and tipping the scales towards Apple by making Apple the cooler choice.   In essence, they are creating an image for the Apple fan to embrace (ie…. Mac as a cool alternative to the uncool PC) and a reason to disdain the “enemy.”

The ultimate goal of any business is to create a loyal customer.   Giving the customer a reason to be loyal to your brand only will go a long way towards keeping that customer.  If you take the time to work with the customer and turn him into a fan of your business,  the customer will stay with you at the exclusion of all others.