This week, but to be honest the last couple of weeks, several Formula One teams posted some “questionable” posts on their social media. At least this was the conversation these posts sparked amongst followers and sideline followers of the teams. Some fans praised social media managers for creating the content they desired while others questioned if drivers were being exploited by teams.
This particular situation reignited a very interesting conversation about how people connect with brands and how athletes have been playing an ever-important part in this relationship. As someone who works in marketing and communication this is absolutely my sweet spot of subjects!
The Human Era
The sentence “people create connections with people not brands or companies” is repeated to exhaustion in most marketing circles. In my opinion this has always been true but is especially true today. Some say it is a reflection of the fact that we have entered the “Human Era” of business where consumers want meaningful and authentic connections not just with other people but also with brands. For decades companies communicated with consumers when they wanted, about subjects they found relevant and in a very artificial way. It is no wonder consumers began to trust brands less and less and the concept of influencer came to be during this period. The influencer was a way of hiring the “authentic connection” instead of doing the work of connecting on a human level, showing a real personality and having a two-way relationship with consumers.
A lot, if not most, well-established companies still find it difficult to truly create this trust with consumers and be open, real and flawed. And as such, influencers still have an important role to play.
Athletes are great influencers
In the midst of this, athletes have successfully been able to do that what teams’ cant — create authentic relationships with fans. The numerous digital platforms allowed them to show fans who they are as people, give exclusive access to a world fans are passionate about and even bring new people into the sport. This is true in most sports and a quick search on Instagram, Twitter or Tik Tok will proof this simply by the number of followers and engagment athletes have in comparison to the teams they play for.
“You see this shift in sports where kids are following athletes first, then they’re following clubs and then they’re following leagues because they want that one-to-one connection with the athletes that they admire.” Heidi Browning, Chief Marketing Officer NHL
Formula One is no exception to this. In fact, it is a great example of how social media and athletes brought the sport back to life. Before 2017 Formula One was a closed off world known to some and talked about by a few. Their social media presence was limited to the point that F1 would purposely demand user generated content to be removed from social platforms. This all changed when Liberty Media took over and Netflix’s “Drive to survive” was released two years later. Fans started to talk freely about Formula One online and create content that would engage people who never heard about the sport. Drivers became people with personalities with the ability to tell their own stories and gained followers ranging in the millions.
The female fandom
Some may say those millions of fans are fangirls, as if this is a derogatory thing, who are just interested in the drivers not in the sport. Whether this is true or not shouldn’t really matter and from what I have seen female fans know as much and are as interested in the sporting side of Formula One as most male fans of any age. More important than this is the fact that these female fans would probably never have come to Formula One without social media, without the drivers and maybe even without “Drive to Survive”. And these female fans hold great power. They organize themselves in communities, they are the ones watching races, purchasing tickets and merchandise. They are the ones talking about Formula One, giving it the relevance and pop culture status it longed for.
As the female fandom has shown in many other industries before (music, fashion, cinema) they are loyal to the ones they like and to those who respect them. They are the ones pushing industries forward and they are the ones growing the fan base by getting friends and family involved. Young women are the number one consumer group generating revenue and buzz and most athletes seem to have figured this out, including in Formula One.
Really interesting and fun Ted Talk by Yve Blake about Fangirls and how the world talks about them.
Now, athletes backed with millions of loyal followers, who put their money where their mouth is, seem to have been able to change their power dynamic with teams. Especially, after teams figured out that these fans move from team to team with the athletes. Moving the revenue stream with them. This new power gives athletes the ability to have more opportunities, negotiate better contracts and even create highly lucrative additional revenue streams. But it also puts them at some risk.
First of all, not every athlete is interested in being a public persona. Sure, as an athlete in a major team you have regular media exposure but quite a few of them really don’t enjoy being in the public eye. If having social media accounts with millions of followers becomes a main criteria for getting hired by a team and be able to negotiate better contracts doesn’t that create a bias towards individuals that are more extrovert or willing to expose and commodify themselves?
There is no doubt in my mind that teams currently hiring athletes are looking at the number of fans they bring along and the possible revenue streams it will generate. I also doubt it they don’t discuss how these athletes can generate more media exposure for the team and even bring in new sponsorship deals. But what about great athletes or even rookies who aren’t influencers and honestly don’t want to be? Are they doomed in this new era?
Those that do have huge fanbases online face other risks. One of them being, taken advantage of or being over exposed by teams aware of their lack of social relevance without them. Hungry for exposure, engagment and even “virality” teams may try to leverage the athlete’s fanbase in a way that is beneficial to them but is not necessarily aligned with the personal brand of the athlete.
Chase trust not likes
The pictures and videos of the last couple of weeks seems to touch exactly on this point. It appears brands fell into the trap of reducing the female fandom to “lusting obsessive girls” and tried to create content that catered to that idea. However, the inauthentic nature of it rang alarms within the fanbase and old lingering mistrust for brands made them feel like “their athlete” was being “whored out” for likes and views.
If this is the case or not, I don’t know, but what I found interesting in this situation is how it illustrates how brands and companies still find it difficult to create trusting relationships with their target audience, especially young female audiences and especially in sport. And despite athletes having shown they can play an important role in helping brands build these relationships, brands can’t continue old behaviors and “sprinkle” athletes in their communication to gain engagment and visibility. Fans, including the supposed “lusting fangirls”, can clearly feel when things are not authentic and more than this, they don’t mind calling companies out on their bullshit.
At the end the content did generate huge number of views and likes but it did nothing or little in shifting how people feel about the brands and that is, in my opinion, what should really have mattered.