10 June 2024

Tapping into culture: Speaking to fans on their terms

Charlie Skillen

Question: How do you make a Saudi Arabian entertainment company relevant to football-mad Geordies living over 3,000 miles away from their Jeddah HQ? 

Answer: Tap into their culture, have the conversation on their terms, know what you’re talking about and who you’re saying it to. 

On Tuesday night, Newcastle United shirt sponsors Sela projected an image on the Baltic, a converted flour mill, just the other side of the River Tyne from Quayside. The image wasn’t a logo, a club badge, or a picture of a Toon legend. It was a crudely-written sign with the message ‘BMX 4 SALE 42 KWID O.N.O.’ with a phone number underneath. 

If you’re not a dyed-in-the-wool Newcastle fan, that means absolutely nothing. But in a football-mad city where black-and-white shirts double as a civic uniform, the imagery immediately struck a chord. 

It is a remake of a famous flag that Newcastle supporters took to Monaco for a UEFA Cup game in 1997 – as a joke around the bevy of sports cars that line the streets of the Principality, the Toon fans offered locals the chance to buy a second-hand bike. 

It sounds silly – and is – but it’s embedded in Newcastle fan culture. The people that mattered saw the projection and knew immediately it was for them. With no branding on the image, fans ringing the phone number heard a recorded message telling them Sela were putting on a show for fans on Saturday night. 

Toon supporters who gathered by the Tyne were treated to a light and projection show depicting famous Newcastle moments and legends – delighting crowds and sparking amazed gratitude from club officials. 

It follows hot on the heels of Sela giving up their shirt sponsorship to RNID for a match against Tottenham Hotspur, introducing haptic shirts that make the sport more inclusive for deaf people. Before that, the skies above St. James’ Park were lit up at the start of last season with an eye-catching drone show to celebrate the club’s return to the Champions League. 

There are, of course, other forces at play here.  Sela is owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, who also hold a majority stake in the club. With many wary on the Saudi’s involvement in football due to their human rights record, critics see involvement with a cultural asset like Newcastle United as an example of sportswashing – and argue that all activity should be viewed through that lens. 

From a pure fan engagement standpoint, however, they’ve played a masterstroke. As soon as the projection had gone up, hundreds of Newcastle fans – as well as prominent journalists – were tweeting the image. The campaign culminated in Saturday’s show, provoking press coverage, excitement for fans and a buzz on social media. 

It’s a prime example of making a partnership work for fans and generating meaningful positive sentiment, rather than slapping a badge on and riding off into the sunset leaving fans scratching their heads, none the wiser on what your partnership or brand means. 

It also comes after the decline of Cazoo, the online used car retailer who were seemingly everywhere you looked in sport a couple of years ago. Cazoo fell into administration last month, having spent an eye-watering £36.5million per year on sports sponsorships. 

Everton, Aston Villa, The Hundred, the Epsom Derby, snooker’s main events, darts, Welsh rugby, rugby league, golf’s European Tour… no stone was left unturned in this mass badging exercise. 

Every sport fan was aware of Cazoo – but that seemingly didn’t translate to real brand engagement or meaningful fan interaction. The approach was scattergun and – to consumers – impenetrably ubiquitous. 

It was all quantity, not quality. They didn’t back up the badging with engaging, exciting activations that brought fans and fan experience into the centre of the partnerships – and, in turn, fans saw right through it as the transactional arrangement that it was. 

Cazoo must have left good assets on the table with all of these deals. Where were the real-world opportunities for fans, the viral social content with sporting heroes, the on-the-ground immersion into real supporter culture? One or two meaningful partnerships that lead to real consumer engagement is worth ten ‘badge-slapping’ agreements.  

That is the biggest challenge facing brands wanting a piece of sporting fame – understanding the assets available to you as partner to a sports rightsholder – getting as many of them as possible and using them correctly. 

Fans are ready to celebrate brands and partnerships – as long as they are meaningful, speak their language and demonstrate a knowledge of supporter culture. It’s why Newcastle fans are proudly sharing pictures of Sela’s latest activation. 

Nothing, however, turns them off more than a one-and-done badging. It’s common for even the most devoted fans to be left bewildered that have done nothing to understand their culture and – in their view – serve only to cheapen their sport. 

A big part of our mission at Boldspace Sport is to help brands do just this – sweat the assets from partnerships in a way that becomes meaningful to fans, creates a splash in the media and beyond and ultimately builds brand value. To learn how we can make that difference for you, just drop us a line.