Sky’s the limit for new breed of passion brands

Love him or loathe him, one thing Rupert Murdoch is extremely good at is spotting how value is migrating and seizing leadership of the trend for himself. He did it with Sky and satellite. He’s doing it with Sky and digital. And now he appears to have done it with Manchester United – the difference being that while the first two were about technology platforms, the United takeover is all about power of the Manchester United brand.

Murdoch’s recognition of this power says an awful lot, not only about the nature of modern media but the way brands – virtually all brands – are evolving. It wasn’t so long ago that football clubs were supplicants. They went almost cap-in-hand to big brands for a little sponsorship money, or to TV stations for the privilege of a TV airing. But over the past decade, the boot has increasingly moved to the other foot.

Everyone knows they deliver mass audiences, and they’re bidding their prices ever higher as a result. Nowadays, would-be sponsor brands have to have very deep pockets if they want an association with a top team. And we almost expect the price of broadcasting rights to double or triple with each new round of negotiations. Yet icon brands, such as Manchester United, have realised that so far they are getting chicken feed compared with the revenues their brand could command.

United’s share of the UK fan market is currently about 20 per cent, but it only gets ten per cent of Premier League broadcast rights. Then there’s the potential of separate deals for pay-per-view and a possible European Super League. Indeed, with the launch of its own TV station last week, it could seize control of big slices of broadcasting revenues for itself.

Looking five years ahead, it would no longer be dependent on either the Premier League for rights negotiations or third-party broadcasters for airtime. So Sky, which had built its audiences using sport, was facing marginalisation. Murdoch simply had to act.

But what makes this brouhaha particularly significant is the way it rams home current trends. The one thing that was really unleashed by the deal, apart from “loadsamoney”, is passion. Manchester United is a perfect example of a new breed of passion brands which are transforming the brandscape.

Passion brands are so different to traditional brands that for decades marketers have been blind to their potential. The first thing a passion brand does is deny and reverse the number one rule of marketing. Instead of trying to find out what its customers want in order to deliver it, it does the exact opposite. It starts out with what inspires it and then says to the public at large, “would you like to buy into this passion?”.

Passion brands can take many forms. What drives charities, pressure groups, political parties and religions, for example, is an inner belief, not the search for a marketable commodity. What drives the creators of intellectual property in areas such as music, arts, literature, sports, and crafts is their joy in the thing itself – not necessarily its saleability.

Such “anti-marketing” characteristics are precisely what makes well-managed passion brands so powerful. They are authentic, not artificial. They come from the heart – not clinical financial calculation – and as emotional beings people warm to that, especially in today’s cynical times.

Recognising the power of emotion, managers of traditional brands try to wrap round layers of emotional association to make their brands seem more attractive. Passion brands come at it from the opposite end. They go straight for the heart strings. The products and services they sell are vehicles and expressions of their passion, not add-ons.

Passion brands’ relationship with the public is also entirely different. They do not have “consumers”. They have fans, supporters, members. This, in turn, creates a powerful sense of community, whereas the consumer of a product is an isolated individual.

And finally, until very recently, for all the above reasons, passion brands have tended to be strapped for cash. Profit was not the core purpose. Few passion brands (until recently) have been plcs. And cash has been seen as the means to the end, perhaps a little “dirty”.

Passion brands and traditional brands once inhabited such different worlds that the actions of one hardly affected the fortunes of the other. But those days are over. The two types of brand are increasingly competing in the same market for the same consumers hearts and minds, time and cash.

As passion marketers realise the enormous power of their brands they are learning to maximise their potential revenue streams through merchandise, media products, alliances with service providers (such as affinity marketing deals with credit cards), catering, events and so on.

As passion brands threaten to eat into traditional brands’ incomes and icon status, traditional brands are responding: Murdoch-style (if you can’t beat ’em, buy ’em); by hitching a ride with their emotional bandwagons through sponsorship, cause-related marketing and so on; by an increasing obsession with their own internal values; through a quest for corporate citizenship and social responsibility; and by donning “crusading” and other highly emotional stances.

Perhaps Manchester United is going too far, too fast, in trying to capitalise on its brand’s emotional capital. Over-commercialise and you risk losing your authenticity. It’s also a hallmark of passion brands that regardless of the legal position, fans, supporters and members feel they are its “true” owners, that the brand is “really” theirs. Flouting that feeling inflamed many Manchester United fans and just shows that managing a passion brand is different to managing a traditional one, and that new skills need to be developed. Likewise, if managers of traditional brands want to avoid making their brands seem grey, faceless and mundane, they will need to find credible ways of responding. Because the trend is inexorable.

The centre of marketing gravity is shifting from traditional brands to passion brands. Looking back, our professional descendants will find it bizarre that we once believed the pinnacle of branding lay with something as dull, trivial, and existentially meaningless as a soap powder.

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