WHAT SPORT CAN TEACH US ABOUT BEING HUMAN

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We recently ran a Post-Traumatic-Growth webinar, looking at 5 psychologically grounded principles to help brand and business recovery. One of the salient themes that really struck me was a discussion around how the “mass deprivation” exercise we have all been through has forced us to assess what we really value in life. So now we’re beginning to emerge into the world again, what have you missed most during lockdown?

The trite answers for me are watching football (aka “soccer”) and drinking draught beer in a pub. The combination can be devastating. But as sport came back, and pubs dispensed takeaway pints, I realised that it was about much more than this. Football without fans is just not the same. It’s one of those hollow experiences, like low fat chocolate, mimed ‘live’ music or fake suntan. I have become addicted to the fake crowd noises, and even feel better when fake cardboard cut-out spectators adorn the stands! How strange is that?

Football, I have come to appreciate, isn’t just about a game or a result. It’s about a whole experience. The pub, the camaraderie, the anticipation. The pre, during and post-match rituals. And above all, the human-to-human connection. The beautiful game bridges barriers, it builds relationships and it unites people.

SENSE OF BELONGING

During lockdown, we have come to recognise and value our ‘tribes’. Whether our families, our friends or our colleagues, we have craved contact, wanting to stay in touch and be part of a team.

James Kerr’s inspirational book Legacy, which gets to the heart of the world’s most successful sporting team, New Zealand’s legendary All Blacks, sums this up perfectly, “The strength of the wolf is the pack”.

Source: FIFA

And Sir Alex Ferguson also understood this, with his flying geese analogy. Wild geese can travel 70% further when they fly in formation — with a different one taking up the lead at any one time. Sir Alex used this as part of his Manchester United teamwork philosophy: “Remember the geese”, he would say, stopping training and telling his players to look up to the sky, observing the V formation of Canadian geese on their 4,000-mile journey, during which each bird would take its turn at the front.

I have missed the teamwork and sense of belonging, while being isolated both from my fellow football supporters, and from my colleagues too.

SHARED IDENTITY

Sport or football can give us a focal point. We can side with a team. This can help shape our identity and become part of who we are. The same of course is true in business. What brands do we identify with and buy? What is our company’s purpose and value-set? How do we define ourselves? And how has this been challenged, maybe even eroded, during lockdown?

Source: Instagram (@lastdancenetflix)

Again, sport can give us some answers. Netflix and ESPN’s critically acclaimed sports documentary The Last Dance has been a much-heralded lockdown favourite. And it’s the Chicago Bulls plus Michael Jordan himself that provide the purpose, the value-set and the unifying identity. The famous Bulls logo represents strength, dominance and team passion, while the Jordan ‘Jumpman’ Nike logo is a symbol of the sublime skill and ‘Air’ prowess of the man himself.

Less viewed but equally compelling is Amazon’s The Test: A New Era For Australia’s Team. This behind-the-scenes series looks at how Australia, as one of the world’s leading cricket teams, had to rebuild their reputation and their integrity, following their ball-tampering fall from grace. What shines through here is the shared sense of identity, and just what it means for players to represent Australia, and wear the famous ‘baggy green’ cap.

Post-lockdown, we are emerging with a renewed sense of priorities, reassessing which brands and which allegiances are truly important to our own identities.

PASSION AND ESCAPISM

What fake crowd noises and piped Test cricket sounds can’t quite replicate is the wonderful sense of abandonment and escapism that live sport offers. In marketing, we often talk about the rational notion of “reason to believe”. But sport offers more than this: it is more emotional, more about “permission to dream”.

Just spend a few episodes with the wonderfully resolute Sunderland fans, in Sunderland Till I Die, to truly understand this. This sports documentary, now into two series, chronicles the perpetual decline and horrendous mismanagement of a once-famous English football team. The one constancy is the dedication and belief of the honest working people who make up the Sunderland support base.

Source: Twitter

Another giant of North-East English football, Sir Bobby Robson, was someone who could truly encapsulate what it means to follow a dream and pursue your passion. He paints a compelling and romantic notion of what, at heart, defines a football club: “It’s the noise, the passion, the feeling of belonging, the pride in your city. It’s a small boy, clambering up stadium steps for the very first time, gripping his father’s hand, gawping up at the hallowed stretch of turf beneath him and, without being able to do a thing about it, falling in love”.

THE HUMAN EXPERIENCE (HX) LEARNINGS

If FC Barcelona are “more than a club”, then sport and football are more than a game. Their absence has shown us some of the things we value most about humanity: contact with like-minded people, shared experiences and a sense of team belonging. Maybe a little liquid refreshment to act as a social lubricant too!

Many of us have missed these human experiences, suffering the psychology of loss aversion. But we can now all begin to come alive again, and to re-connect with fellow humans, whether via the experience of live sport or other shared interest areas.

Source: FourFourTwo

Beer is, at heart, a social belonging category, so it’s wonderful to see Budweiser recreating their iconic “Wassup” commercial, “watching the game, having a Bud”. Shared identity has been given new meaning by the Black Lives Matter movement, fully embraced by Premier League footballers with just one name on all shirts. At the same time, Sports Interative’s iconic Football Manager game has captured passion and escapism for a young and predominantly male audience, enabling them to stay connected and communicate, without leaving their homes during lockdown. These are all basic human values, so it’s no surprise that they can help fuel brand growth.

There’s a statue of the legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly at The Kop end of their Anfield stadium. Underneath it says, “He made the people happy”. And therein lies the power of the beautiful game!

Andrew Christophers is Co-Founder of Brand Genetics, a global insight and innovation agency specialising in unlocking growth by thinking human-first. Brand Genetics’ global clients include ABInBev, Estee Lauder, Mondelez, PepsiCo, Reckitt Benckiser and Unilever. Andrew previously held marketing and innovation roles at Cadbury, Guinness and United Biscuits.

Human-Centered Insight, Innovation and Trends from Brand Genetics www.brandgenetics.com

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