Brand ambassadors teach Setanta a lesson. Will Stella learn the hard way too?

Most brands go to extraordinary lengths to avoid alienating their core audiences. Keeping these all-important brand ambassadors onside is one of marketing’s golden rules. This week Setanta, the satellite sports provider, has learned this lesson the hard way while Stella Artois is just about to find out.

Setanta has outraged England football fans – its most important brand promoters – by failing to strike a deal with ITV or BBC to show terrestrial highlights of this week’s England games against Andorra and Croatia. Few viewers were able to watch highlights of these important World Cup qualifying matches, which is particularly painful given England’s storming performance against Croatia.

England fans attending last Saturday’s Andorra match were angered that their friends and families at home were unable to watch the television highlights. From the terraces they sang “We hate Setanta”, which could clearly be heard as Setanta broadcast the match live to paying customers. Whoops.

Meanwhile Stella Artois has done what would have once seemed unthinkable. Its owner Inbev has allowed the lager to be delisted by the National Union of Students after a disagreement over price.

No longer will student union bars stock Stella or other Inbev brands such as Staropramen and Beck’s. For decades these high-class revellers have been the target of Stella’s arthouse film sponsorships and chic advertising. Another group of brand ambassadors has been frozen out.

Whether this is part of some brilliant long-term masterplan remains to be seen. Perhaps Inbev believes that by playing hardball over pricing it really can ensure the brand regains its upmarket position, whatever the short-term cost.

It should be remembered that there can be instances where alienating your core audience is part of a deliberate strategy. New Labour was built on the premise of demonstrating “modernisation” by bashing the very trades unions that created it in the first place. Labour has built a new core audience of lapsed Conservative voters. Tory leader David Cameron is mimicking this by criticising big business.

But Setanta’s behaviour over the past week suggests a deep lack of strategy and an absence of brand sense – that indefinable quality which is closely related to common sense. This is surprising given the pedigree of Setanta’s marketing director Tim Ryan, an astute and experienced marketer previously from AOL and Orange. Perhaps no one at Setanta listens to him. For the damage done to the promising up-and-coming brand this week has been immeasurable.

Setanta paid £5m for the exclusive rights to the Croatia game and was determined to get some of that back from selling the highlights. But neither ITV nor BBC would pay the sky-high £1m Setanta demanded.

It wasn’t only England fans who criticised Setanta. Prime Minister Gordon Brown also stuck the boot in. When a brand attracts opprobrium from even the PM, you know it is in trouble.

Eventually Setanta was forced into a climbdown. It belatedly agreed to show the highlights free by unencrypting its Setanta Freeview channel. Then it buckled completely and the next day it agreed to show them on ITV. However, the last minute nature of these deals meant few people were aware of the screenings.

The whole affair leaves Setanta looking shabby, naïve and chaotic. But all is not lost if it learns lessons from this, never repeats it and makes some gesture to get England fans back on its side.

Core customers need to be carefully nurtured and cherished. That’s why pop stars have fan clubs and airlines have frequent flyer lounges. Core audiences can make brands. But they can also break them.

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