It is not an easy thing, building brand affinity for a soccer club, or any team or league, that plays games thousands of miles away and whose stars rarely show up in market. Broadcast media, and the digital and social world have made it a bit easier to connect and follow, but with all the distractions of local teams and clubs and opportunities how can you find ways to build true brand affinity that will last and lead to an ROI.
One club that has tried to build that out of market affinity effectively is FC Bayern Munich, the Bundesliga powerhouse. Seeing two emerging markets for soccer, China and the United States, the club has decided to find ways to build their brand into a solid and passionate year-round business and fan engagement platform despite the fact that the parent club will not make a physical appearance in the United States at least until a friendly tour in the summer of 2016. That tour will actually be the payoff for Bayern’s unique work in the United States, rather than the launch of a brand for a few fleeting weeks of exposure. Will their work having an actual marketing staff in the US for almost 18 months pay off down the line? So far, so good.
The Bayern brand is built around the saying “MIA SAN MIA” – WE ARE WHO WE ARE. The Bavarian expression stands for the values the club passes on to fans, players and employees of FC Bayern Munich. It comprises pride, confidence as well as familiarity and heritage. Those values and beliefs resulted in three pillars the Club is recognized for for years not just in Germany, but around the world:
Most important: Success on the field!
Differentiator: Economic success!
Youth: Development of home-grown players!
For sure FC Bayern is a household brand in the European core market with a brand awareness according to some polls as high as of 99%. However that brand can only grow so far in the conservative Bundesliga, or even throughout Europe. Massive media deals have helped propel other clubs to have a lucrative global presence, with Manchester United, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona being three of the biggest global brands for sport, so in order for FC Bayern to expand they too must look well beyond their borders and find ways to put down stakes that can lead to expansion and support, from the grassroots to the professional level. That support may also not be limited to just their elite club; it could include their successful programs in sports like basketball, as well as their women’s soccer club, all of which have great recall in the homeland but not yet abroad.
In order to gain traction in the U.S., Bayern took a bit of an unconventional approach; putting down roots in New York 24/7 so that they could fully understand the sports marketplace, and identify the areas of penetration which would make the most sense for the long term. The club also had, and has, the benefit of having key brand partners who are engaged with the American consumer; Audi, Adidas, Allianz and Deutsche Telekom (with their active U.S. brand T Mobile) who have built traditional sports marketing programs in the United States, and who can at the right time use their brand power to engage casual fans with all things Bayern, especially as a summer tour comes closer. The now growing Bundesliga deal with Fox Sports in the United States has started to also lift the Bayern brand amongst casual soccer fans, giving a large, consistent broadcast presence to integrate into at the right time.
With those assets in mind, an understanding of how to exactly build brand in a market that is growing in soccer but literally foreign to German soccer needed to be put in place. The opportunity was seen in the grassroots and in the social space. FC Bayern did not go and spend thousands creating their own academy program; they found existing youth programs in key markets, especially on the east coast where there was some affinity amongst soccer fans with the Bayern name, where they could assist with coaching and travel programs, product placement and special incentives to integrate all things Bayern into a vibrant soccer community. Not only could that help grow American soccer in terms of youth skills programs, it created a base of not just current, but future, supporters of the club for decades to come.
The second grassroots effort was in the digital space. Upon arrival in the past two years there was a smattering of supporter clubs for Bayern in the United States, especially in parts of the country where there were large segments of German immigrants. Some had grown because of Germany’s World Cup success, the name recognition of former star Franz Beckenbauer when he played in the States with the New York Cosmos of the original North American Soccer League, a recent U.S. tour and Bayern’s success in the Champions League and in the Bundesliga, but those clubs were small and relatively unengaged by most standards. In order to grow, Bayern’s U.S. team identified key soccer areas for growth not just in traditional large markets, but in rising hotbeds big and small. They then set out in a market-by-market engagement program, looking for influencers who would have an interest in organizing and then implementing a local supporters club for viewing parties and other events. The supporter clubs could not be just symbolic, they had to have a minimum of 11 members, a public place to meet and other simple criteria, and in return Bayern would support the clubs with kits and other materials as incentives.
The bigger and more active the club, the more swag came their way and the more perks the supporters could get when a US-based tour, or a sponsor activation, kicks into play. The result of the targeted outreach and social support has been impressive.
In a very short period Bayern has grown from just eight supporter clubs in the US to over 90, from cities like Los Angeles and Chicago to places like Idaho, making their network the largest in terms of numbers of any European club in the United States, and setting the tone for future growth as well.
Now all of this activity comes still without the grand payoff of a visit by the club to the United States which will come this summer. That is the short-term benefit for Bayern and tis supporters and brands. The long term could come on multiple ;levels; with youth programs understanding the Bayern history and converting into lifelong fans; for adults who see the strength of Bayern and migrate to their brand partners when making purchasing decisions; for media companies who grasp the work Bayern is doing and want to engage more with the club globally, and perhaps on the talent side, where all the elements Bayern has set up leads to more rising Americans joining their elite team and building an even stronger on the field product.
All of that investment is not without risk. While some payoffs are short term, most could take years to mature, and in a crowded marketplace without a club on the ground it is sometimes hard to keep that drumbeat of support going 24/7. There is no thought of taking the step that a club like Manchester City has done and using the Bayern brand to integrate into MLS or the NASL, so the presence in the States can be through brand affinity with sponsors, youth development, and through broadcast and digital activation. There is also the global success of the club itself, which, in a world where sport is increasingly more global and soccer is expanding in its visibility in the US, makes it an easier sell.
Is the FC Bayern Munich plan a bit out of the ordinary, especially for a club that has been somewhat conservative in its approach in its history? Yes. Does it take into account all the forward-thinking factors that are needed for growing global sports brands? Yes. Will it succeed? That of course is TBD, but with all the pieces in place, a US tour on the horizon and the perennial success of the Bayern brand, it certainly has a great chance for being a blueprint for what can be done, not just for soccer in the US but for other large team brands in other sports around the world. Take the time to understand the local culture, use the grassroots and digital space and the star power of the name, and the investment may just bear even more fruit for the long term than was even expected.
Bayern Munich is certainly one to watch.