The first formal marketing education I ever had was a sports marketing course taught by a twenty-something high school teacher, who I suspect just wanted an excuse to have us play fantasy football for two-fifths of the week and take us on a field trip of Madison Square Garden. Fourteen-year-old me loved it.
Beyond our pathetic showing in that fantasy league nearly two decades ago, there was one nugget of wisdom from that class that sticks with me still: sports is different because teams have fans, not customers. Fans will put up with dismal performance of the New York Jets (like me). Customers would would all flock to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or whatever “product” wins the next Super Bowl.
Being a fan is inherently irrational. It’s often even hereditary. For fans, the product does have something to do with waving that flag, but the group you join by doing so is much more important. Fans will put up with bad products because their relationship with the brand is core to their identity.
Customers want a product that solves their need best. Customers can be swayed by price, or easily moved by a drop in quality or an exciting new entrant. Customers can come and go.
Apple has fans. Lenovo has customers.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have fans. Joe Biden and Marco Rubio have customers.
Yeti has fans. Coleman has customers.
Supreme has fans. Uniqlo has customers.
Harley Davidson has fans. Honda has customers.
You can build a big business with customers, but it takes fans to really make a dent in the universe. Any business leader knows immediately which side of that equation is more profitable.
How do you end up with a legion of fans? There’s no secret sauce, and frankly a large part of it is an emergent, magic X factor. Great design helps, but there are lots of beautiful failures. Impeccable quality helps, but there are some bulletproof also-rans across history. Many brands who have build large fan bases have an obsession with customer service, but then again so do some brands that inspire nobody. But at the bedrock, all of these fan-worthy brands have a clarity and authenticity of mission. They have the “why” that animates so much of great marketing.
It’s a tough nut to crack, but it pays back in multitudes. After all, my miserable Jets still sell out season after season.