Adding value to fans

heineken fans adding value bw

Adding value to the fan is a mantra of sponsorship nowadays. A mantra that emerged in response to sponsors who viewed sponsorship only as an opportunity for brand exposure. But those times, the times of ‘badging’, have largely gone.

So why revisit?

Because mantras outlive their purpose. And because we collectively now have a deeper understanding of consumer experience and psychology to be satisfied with a simple injunction to add value.

The starting point is to define value. We’ve all seen activations which amount to no more than white noise and heard the agency sales pitch waxing enthusiastically about the value add. What does adding value really mean?

Bain’s elements of value

We’re ashamed to say we only came across Bain’s value exchange model this year, thanks to the superb Unofficial Partner, (podcast 223, Elements of Value) and I’m indebted to Ben Phillips and Mike Brady from InfrontX, who’ve placed it at the centre of their service offering.

Bain’s team used research to understand the different elements of value that products and services offer, looking beyond the strictly functional. Their work identified 30 discrete elements in B2C transactions and 40 elements in B2B. Their value model adapts Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs to structure value at the levels of functional, emotional, life-changing and social impact.

It’s worth making the point that, even though only one layer is labelled emotional, every benefit could also be expressed emotionally – just as physical security, sitting in Marlow’s lowest tier, addresses a fundamental emotional need to feel safe. In fact, every transaction or exchange is inevitably laden with emotional meaning – and it’s a mistake to forget that.

Bain's B2C Elements of Value

It’s not radically new – in fact, as long ago as 1895 Harlow Gale was exploring the application of psychology to advertising and Bain’s work belongs to a history of consumer psychology and which experienced a heyday in the 1950s and which is once again on the rise.

Elements of value for sports rightsholders

As Ben and Mike made clear, a subset of values are particularly relevant to sports rightsholders – our thoughts in red.

Bain haven’t publicly offered definitions of these terms, so we can’t be 100% confident of correct interpretation but …

Self-transcendence is usually expressed as moving beyond individual needs which is certainly a factor for most fans. Clubs don’t get their fans out of bed in the morning or provide focused motivation, but the annual structure of sports and the annual challenge – to succeed or at worst mitigate failure – provides both motivation and hope. Affiliation and belonging go without question, as do fun and entertainment. Therapeutic value is open to a wide range of interpretation but there is certainly therapy in fandom. As for badge value, it’s obviously very variable!

Fans are different from consumers

So Bain’s elements of value offer a helpful framework for rightsholders and agencies to consider fan value  – but Bain’s model explicitly balances price with value. It sees its analysis of value as a way to engineer price and loyalty.

The value exchange equation between a team and its fans is very different – because the relationship is not based on commercial transaction but on community and connection. So although Bain’s model is useful – as it reminds us of the importance of fully recognising the person inside the fan – we would argue that its application requires very high levels of psychological insight and understanding to work at its best. Through the lens of psychology, the relationship between consumer and product bears little resemblance to the relationship between fan and team.


For example, while Saatchi’s Kevin Roberts sets the aspirational brand target of ‘lovemark’ and many Fortune 500 companies, despite Byron Sharp, continue to chase NPS, fan relationships with their teams lie beyond both these measures. Even if, let’s say, match day experience doesn’t deliver against NPS, a fan’s level of affinity with the team will surpass even the most devoted consumer brand loyalists – and this fact transforms the nature of this value exchange. For this reason, it’s very dangerous to equate fan with consumer.

Once again, we would look to the psychology of friendship to provide a more useful framework.

Friendship maintenance

An earlier post, The psychology of sponsorship engagement, considered the relevance of the phase of friendship formation to sponsorship, but the territory of value exchange takes us to the phase of maintaining friendship and clearly to the domain of social exchange theory. The concept of social exchange sees relationships largely based on benefit : a positive balance in our perception of  the level of benefit we derive, compared to our investment. Social exchange theory invites us to understand our audience’s view of reciprocity, and their perspective of value exchange.

The starting point academically is observational : if we compare how good friends and acquaintances or more casual friends behave with each other, we see a number of consistently distinctive traits. 

Firstly, they relish each other’s company more. They laugh, they joke, they tease. Friends are more fully engaged in their interactions – closer, more affective, more prosocial. They’re more likely to criticise and disagree – because they’re relaxed in each others’ company. They use the word ‘we’ to indicate themselves as a social unit.

Secondly, they disclose more, sharing personal information and personal feelings that they might hold back from sharing with other people. This is particularly noticeable in the earlier stages of a relationship as a kind of exploratory technique, looking for pushback and resistance. In more mature stages, when trust is established, there is less self-disclosure and it’s more related to direct need.

Thirdly, similarity of values is important. Not just circumstantial similarity, which helps friendship formation, but similarity of behavioural and ethical values and life priorities.

Fourthly, friendship is committed. Although friendships provide rewards, they also entail substantial costs. ‘True’ friends are expected to do almost anything for one another. They give assurance and affirmation that the relationship is important and when necessary use self-disclosure, supportiveness and positivity actively as strategies to maintain friendship closeness.

The final element : friendships rarely recover from loss of trust.


Of course, most of this feels very familiar to us as individuals. Broadly speaking, it reflects our own experience of friendship, and as we discussed in our earlier post, our expectation from others. The main call out is that, unless rights-holders and sponsors  invest appropriately in acquiring the psychological insight to adapt their tone, content and actions to reflect these friendship norms, Bain’s model will remain superficial , because – the point above – this cannot be understood in the framework of a commercial relationship.

This doesn’t mean adopting faux friendly or matey language – it means supporting the communications patterns above. For content teams, some of these points require more of a mindshift than others. How does a club disclose information in a way which feels like private sharing and not simply ‘exclusive’ content. How does it create meaningful mechanisms and callouts for challenge, so these are not simply a request for UGC. For fan service managers, how do we demonstrate real insight into supporter needs. Ultimately for a club, do we have values, do we live them and do we consciously engage our fans in them.

And the top layer of the onion : do we understand how fans generate and serve up value within the different communities which exist around the club?


Which takes us to community. 

Perhaps most importantly, with regard to fan relationships with teams, we don’t believe it’s possible to treat affiliation and belonging as a discrete value. It’s an intrinsic part of being a fan. Fandom is not a solitary pursuit, it’s collective. Community develops around the team. A team or a club is also a social object – anything which enables social behaviour, community and dialogue. The thing about social objects – the connection they create is a large part of their value.

It’s easy for a club to argue that they’re ticking the box of supporting affiliation and belonging for example by selling kit – fans wear it to show their group identity after all. And clearly selling kit – or even running promotions and comps for new strip – does in some ways build affiliation. But affiliation and belonging express themselves in a myriad ways beyond commercial transaction or even stereotypical fandom. Growing a community is not the same as growing a fanbase. 

For some years now, brands have been looking to sports clubs for inspiration on how to build loyalty – perhaps sports clubs should now begin to look to the beacons of participatory culture for their learnings.

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