Die-hard fans should be brands' primary target

Fourteen years ago, England, and Europe, was gripped by Euro '96, the UEFA European Football Championship. England advanced to the semi finals and an ultimate win seemed within reach.

Fourteen years ago, England, and Europe, was gripped by Euro ‘96, the UEFA European Football Championship. England advanced to the semi finals and an ultimate win seemed within reach.

The frenzy was perhaps best exemplified by the presence of Uri Geller, a so-called “paranormalist,” famous for bending spoons using nothing more than the power of his mind. Geller exhorted the English public to touch a large orange dot that was put up on the TV screen before the semi-final match against Germany (yes, this is true), in order to channel winning vibes to England's team.

So intense was the interest in this game that even non-sports fans began to get into the spirit. My husband, who is English and a die-hard footie fan, and I lived south of London at the time, and invited some friends over to watch the match. When Geller called on the masses to touch the orange dot, we all obliged, crowding around the set. “England win,” we and Geller chanted. All except for my one bookish friend, who only came along for the spectacle, and actually uttered the unthinkable, “Germany win.”

England lost the match on penalties. I say this as a person who is largely unsusceptible to superstition; it was all her fault. From that day on, non die-hards were officially banished from our home for any mission critical games.

I was reminded of this turn of events by the growing excitement around the 2010 World Cup, which starts today. If the US does well, all sorts of people will begin to pay attention. This is a good and necessary trajectory for sporting events.

But back in the ordinary marketing world, it's more important than ever to distinguish the hard-core believers from those who might be simply following the crowd. Brands are constantly trying to build their communities of fans, particularly online.

Marketers have become adept at identifying pockets of rabid interest in their products, and harnessing that interest into everything from testimonials to product innovation. But as these activities are scaled to reach even more people, and as companies look for metrics that resonate with those accustomed to macro efforts and big numbers, there is a risk that those rare and critical die-hard fans might be swallowed up by a mass-marketing mentality.

It is a delicate process, to cultivate and encourage the hard-core fan, to garner their powers of influence and insight into the product, without alienating their affection. Invite too many dilettantes to the party, and you might end up waiting another four years for the next big opportunity.

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