SOURCE: The Boston Consulting Group

The Boston Consulting Group

September 08, 2015 12:13 ET

What Happens When Brand Love Turns to Despair and Disappointment? The NFL May Find Out, Says New Book From The Boston Consulting Group

Great Brands Depend on Loyalty and Emotional Connections, But Those Can Fail and Backlash Follows

BOSTON, MA--(Marketwired - Sep 8, 2015) - The NFL (National Football League) may soon find out what happens when brand love turns to despair and disappointment.

The NFL is the world's richest sports brand, with legions of fans and 2014 revenues of about $10 billion. It expects to generate $25 billion in annual revenue by 2027. But if the league mismanages its current threats -- ranging from head trauma to domestic violence to too-aggressive commercial expansion -- many of its passionate followers will turn hostile. If they do, pro football runs the risk of becoming a marginal sport like American boxing. The risk is one that all great brands face when loyal followers turn sour, says The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) senior partner Michael J. Silverstein.

"Great brands are built on emotional connections with consumers. When the connections are broken and consumers feel betrayed, the backlash can be enough to weaken and ultimately destroy an organization," Silverstein says. "Football is a sport on the brink of rebellion. Fans want players to behave; they want owners to love the game for the game's sake; and they want the Commissioner to lead by consensus and persuasion."

The NFL's most loyal fans include women, who make up 44 percent of the fan base, and "superfans" who plan their week around the game, loving the weeklong buildup and the activities like fantasy football and tailgating that connect them to their team when it isn't playing.

But according to Silverstein, those relationships are facing many challenges. The league's response to extreme player misconduct (such as the domestic violence) and to the evidence of devastating head injuries -- both risk alienating female fans. Women may be repelled by player behavior, and mothers, who control the future of the game by deciding whether or not to let their sons play youth and school football, may steer their children away from football and toward other sports like soccer. That could threaten the NFL's long-term viability.

Broken relationships with those core fans could spell an end to pro football's dominance. In a new book, Rocket: Eight Lessons to Secure Infinite Growth (McGraw-Hill, October 2015), Silverstein and BCG co-authors Dylan Bolder, Rune Jacobsen and Rohan Sajdeh argue that brands succeed when they forge deep emotional ties to a small number of their most loyal customers -- "apostles" who drive sales and profit far out of proportion to their numbers because they pay premium prices and become tireless advocates with friends, family and strangers. BCG research shows that a loyal customer -- an apostle -- can generate eight times his or her own consumption through word-of-mouth advocacy. And two percent of consumers directly contribute 20 percent of sales. They drive 80 percent of total volume via their recommendations. They deliver over 150 percent of profitability, buying product without a discount and without regard for seasonality.

But there's a downside. "Great brands aren't stable because human relationships and interconnections aren't stable," Silverstein says. "We use the term 'schismogenesis' -- it comes from anthropology and it says that relationships are constantly either growing stronger and more successful, or spiraling downward and headed toward death. The same is true of brands. They're fragile. Football fans are saying I'm not sure I like what I see."

"When an organization like the NFL loses focus, it risks unsettling that equilibrium," Silverstein adds. "Right now there's an imbalance among the very different interests of players, for whom anything goes, owners who want constant growth and profits, and core females fans -- who care about their sons and about violence. The NFL risks breaking the bonds that define the brand."

According to Silverstein, the NFL has succeeded in the past because it got the balance right. "The owners in the past did five things: (1) they transformed the NFL into a property with a carefully controlled public image; (2) they created a common mission and what they call league think; (3) they built an emotional connection through NFL Films; (4) they targeted the super fans; and (5) they took care of the needs of the next generation -- their youngest players -- and their Moms."

But today, he says, they need to choose between two scenarios:

  • "In the first, hubris reigns. There is no reform, no serious advocacy for player health, no policing of player behavior on and off the field. Everything is focused on exponential growth. If this happens, NFL fans may turn to other sports."

  • "In the second scenario, brand regeneration and consumer response become the calling of players and owners. Players are protected. There is proper policing of behavior. Players who intentionally injure fellow players on the field -- and those guilty of 'ungentlemanly behavior' off the field -- are all thrown out of the game forever. The NFL goes global, expanding beyond its American roots, and is no longer associated with busted brains, broken backs and beaten women."

Brands can recover from schismogensis crises, Silverstein explains. Rocket includes the example of Toyota. "In 2008, problems with 'sudden unintended acceleration' wreaked havoc on the company's reputation and sales. But forthright communication with its customers, rigorous recalls, vigilant investigation of the supposed defect, focused R&D efforts, and ultimately an exculpatory decision issued by the Department of Transportation all helped the company restore the good will and patronage of its global customer base," Silverstein says. Toyota's culture values customer complaint and regards it as a call to action -- that may have helped set it on the road to recovery, he suggests.

Will the NFL follow Toyota's example? "It's a choice the owners need to make now," Silverstein says.

For more information, or to schedule an interview with Michael J. Silverstein, contact Katarina Wenk-Bodenmiller of Sommerfield Communications at (212) 255-8386 or katarina@sommerfield.com.

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