I’ve always loved the cult following associated with sports brands. Fans are not just addicted to the escapism that sports offer, but they religiously identify with and flaunt clubs, players, and leagues they love.

For them, it’s more than an experience – it’s a religion and also a status symbol to many. Humans have an inherent need to belong to groups, and they can do anything and be anything just to be accepted into a group that aligns with their personality and purpose.

I’ve been very keen on uncovering insights on how these sports personalities and platforms gain cult-level loyalty and support and, in this article, I’ll share a key lesson that you can quickly apply to improve your brand experience and loyalty.

A piece of Ajax

I recently stumbled on a tweet by BT sports praising Ajax for a novel fan engagement strategy.

The Amsterdam-based football club just won their 35th league title in a year where fans couldn’t watch their favorite team play live because of the pandemic.

About 42,000 fans had already bought season-long tickets and reserved a seat for themselves all season round before the pandemic struck, and their tickets became irrelevant.

Ajax won the title and decided to share a piece of it with their fans.

They melted the shield-shaped, 200-karat plate to create 42,000 unique stars to be delivered to all the fans that bought season-long tickets. The players played 31 matches, some got injured, others got totally drained out by the end of the season, and the single silverware to show for it was melted and given to the fans. Wow!

The invasion of Old Trafford

In another part of Europe, Manchester to be precise, fans showed up in their thousands to protest against the quality of the football the club is currently playing and blamed it on the club management, calling for the management to sell off the club to people who will value the beautiful game over the business. The fans understand that football is a game of the fans. Clubs and players are only as important as the fans think they are.

For the fans. For the customer.

I’ve read many company brochures, walked through company buildings, and visited many company websites – 7 out of 10 times, brands claim that a core value for them is “customer relationship”. They write it boldly on their websites, on the glossy pages of their brochures, on the wall of their waiting rooms or conference hall.

The big question, however, is, how far can you go to really build and manage your relationship with customers? What are you willing to sacrifice? What are you willing to let go of? What levels of inconveniences are you willing to suffer?

A major reason fans can’t stop being obsessed with clubs and sports stars is that these clubs consistently reinforce that they live for their fans. In moments these beliefs are not reinforced, fans demand it because they’ve been made to understand the game was created for their pleasure.

If you really want to enjoy a cult following, you need to recognize that customers will always follow you if they can hear, see, and feel that you are in business because of making their lives better. This has to be demonstrated in your brand programs, business strategy, product design, communications, and other experiences.

Customers can tell if you value customer relationships or if you just like how that sounds. Your customers already have bad relationships in their lives, with their parents, partners, friends, and even colleagues. Their relationship with you should be an exception.

Why bother?

When customers are obsessed with you, it always leads to an increase in revenue. You spend less on customer acquisition but reap high patronage from consistent repeat patronage and brand evangelism by customers.

  • A 5% increase in customer retention correlates with at least a 25% increase in profit. (Bain & Company)
  • A business’ top 10% of customers spend 3x more than the average customer. (Adobe)
  • Your chance of selling to an existing customer is 60-70%, while your chance of selling to a brand new customer is 5-20%. (Marketing Metrics)
  • Customers with an emotional relationship with a brand have a 306% higher lifetime value and will recommend the company at a rate of 71%, rather than the average rate of 45%. (Motista)

Four core ingredients for a cult following

Stories are the core ingredient of building belief. This is because storytelling involves imagination, and when we imagine things, we open ourselves up to assimilate possibilities. Also, with storytelling, people are exposed to antecedents that validate current realities and remind them of future possibilities.

In the world of sports, storytelling is an important aspect of entire communication planning. Stories on the club’s history, heroes, visions, and even failures. These stories validate the reason for following for many fans and they are either convinced to keep following or their already existing conviction is strengthened. Don’t apply everything in the marketing playbook without applying storytelling. Not just the stories of the clubs; the fans are encouraged to share their stories, and their stories are redistributed as user-generated content and reinforce to other fans that somewhere else in the world, someone connected to the brand has a similar story. Familiar experiences expressed in our stories help move a community into becoming a family. This is also why testimonies are important in religion. Wizkid recorded a full hit on his story. Ojuelegba has become an anthem for Wizkid FC. The song is the Wizkid story, and every young African resonates with it. The pains of the process and the excitement of “blowing” up. What is your story? And how are you telling it?

To build a cult following, something must be laid down. Everyone involved needs to be ready to let go of something. For people in the world of football, the evening of their weekdays is spent in front of a screen. Certain hours of the days of the week are sacrificed to the club they love and the players they admire. It’s a date.

The clubs also must be willing to sacrifice certain profits, buy world star players and coaches to play beautifully and win football games, so that, every day, the fans make a sacrifice with their time and they don’t feel like it’s wasted. Other fans take their sacrifice a notch higher by buying game tickets, club merchandise, and memorabilia, spending so much money to travel abroad to watch a game played live.

Your business will start attracting a cult following when you go beyond profit to make actual sacrifices for the people who buy from you. Have you suffered any setbacks because of customer satisfaction? Have you managed losses because of going the extra mile for customers? Have you helped the very many pain of your customers even when those pains are not your responsibility? If your answer is no, then you are not sacrificing enough yet. Make sacrifices and encourage your customers to make sacrifices, too. It’s in their sacrifice that they feel a sense of belongingness and connection to the brand. Demonstrate to them the impact of their sacrifices. How it makes the brand they love better and bigger. As you plan your brand programs, be sure to introduce elements of sacrifice.

One of the most interesting games of football is the derby. Players live for the excitement of winning derbies, fans earn bragging rights when their clubs win derbies. Football cannot have flavor without the Messi vs. Ronaldo argument and many other such rivalries.

The rise of the banter culture on social media has allowed fans and customers to draw battle lines against brands they don’t like or that are positioned directly opposing brands they love. For consumers, it’s simply “us” against “ them”. Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi, Deeper Life vs. Christ Embassy, Wizkid vs. Davido, Bolt vs. Uber, Milo vs. Ovaltine, Klien vs. Ariel…

The journey to building a cult following using rivalry starts with you identifying your position in the market. Are you a leader or a smart follower? If you are a leader, you can’t pick fights with brands below you, but you can make a case for why your brand stands out in the entire category, thereby reinforcing your position as a market leader and further reinforcing that only your brand can attain a leadership role in that category. This can only work when your differentiation can be viewed as a defense and barrier to entry.

If you are a smart follower, then you can attempt to poke at the seemingly unique features of the market leader and posture as a better brand offering what the competition is about and more.

The second concern with using rivalry is identifying your brand archetype and the extent of aggression allowed for your brand personality type. Caregivers cannot be seen to be directly or subtly taking jabs at other brands or their positioning. Though many caregiver brands hid under the cause edge of being a caring brand to stage a fight against ideologies or systems.

Also, you must understand how to truly engage your audience, sell them on the rivalry and why they need to take a stand with your brand against other brands. Without proper customer engagement, you’ll leave your customers feeling you are picking up unnecessary fights while other customers may just believe it’s none of their business, it’s just two corporations fighting.

For the customers that will stick with you and stay loyal like a sworn cult member, the difference between your brand and others has to be clear enough for them to see and deep enough for them to care. You must build a differentiation that is very innovative and stands you out in your category, thereby earning your customers points to argue for your brand.

Aldin Karabeg sent a mail to all 92 English football clubs from his room in Bosnia and his question was simple: Why should he join any of the clubs as a fan? He literally asked all the English clubs in the league to pitch their value to him. Of 92, only 10 responded and he ended up with Everton Football Club, one of the clubs that responded.

Fans are increasingly asking, “What’s in it for me?”, “Why should I belong to your cult?”, “What is your offer?”. Ajax melted their trophy and shared with their fans, Wizkid puts out award-winning music, offering his fans good music above all others (and awards to go with it). I am currently consulting for ABiT Network on a project that will help entertainment fans earn Tatcoin (Africa’s most valuable utility token) for their loyalty and support for their favorite artists.

According to Babin (et al., 1994), the perceived value of fan loyalty programs is conceptualized as having four dimensions: utilitarian, hedonic, symbolic, and relational values. Giving the four-dimensional approach for conceptualizing perceived value, Babin suggests a comprehensive conceptual framework and identifies monetary prize (utilitarian value ), entertainment (hedonic value), sense of community (symbolic value), and special treatment (relational value) as proxy variables of a perceived value of a fan loyalty program.

Your customers are always asking for value if they will stick around. Are they expecting a monetary prize? Or a consistent and complete “feel good” experience that can serve as an escape for them? Or do they become part of a carefully curated community that takes care of its members or should they expect extra perks and special treatments?

I’ve seen brands invest so much into customer acquisition and almost nothing into customer retention and management. Your customers walk in through the left “Enter” door and almost instantly walk out through the right “Exit” door. You shouldn’t focus on incentivizing while onboarding new customers and ignore people that are staying and have stayed with your brand through the years and through the seasons.

Go beyond issuing coupons and demonstrate real value in your customer loyalty reward system. For your business, you can collaborate with complementary brands to bring your customers bundle offers that will better improve how they use your product. You can create a forum for consistent engagement where entertainment, a sense of community, and special treatment (that Babin talked about) can happen simultaneously.

The quality of cult following football clubs enjoy can be experienced in every industry, and I believe these four core ingredients will start you on your way to building a brand that customers will come to love passionately and promote tirelessly.

Cover image source: Ronny Sison