In 2020, as the Covid pandemic took hold, normally raucous football stadiums around the UK emptied. The government imposed bans on in-person attendance at stadiums and matches were played to empty stadiums. Football clubs such as the 130-year-old Tottenham Hotspur Football Club (aka Spurs) had to find new ways to keep in touch with their fanbase.
“We were told … that we needed to get back to work and entertain everybody on their sofas,” recounts Donna-Maria Cullen, the football club’s executive director, to Campaign Asia-Pacific. “So, we did that albeit we played in an empty stadium, but everyone could watch from their homes.”
She spoke to Campaign from Korea, where she was part of the team’s pre-season tour.
The pandemic fast-tracked the brand transformation for football and the Spurs. “We earlier marketed more directly (to consumers), now we go the digital route,” she added. “Football is pretty unique as it impacts the full marketing funnel, awareness, product consideration, and loyalty.”
Spurs has significantly hastened its digital development. The club revamped its website, recast its app and expanded its social media capabilities in line with this shift. While television growth has been significant, Cullen says digital campaigns have now overtaken traditional formats at Spurs. The club also fast-tracked its marketing tech stack build out.
A big reason for the club to make these investments and evolve their marketing strategy is to try and keep the attention of attention-short millennials. Cullen says this demographic consumes content differently from older groups and the club had to work out which platforms worked for them.
“We've seen this change; we have seen Snapchat come and go and come again. We have seen Twitter, which ostensibly was out there as a news product and then everyone tried to use it differently,” she explains.
Now, clubs are kicking Tiktok about and seeing significant traction on it. Cullen points out that today Spurs has the second-highest number of followers worldwide after Real Madrid on TikTok. The club recently launched a campaign with its Korean player Son Heung-Min, which had over a million views overnight.
@spursofficial Duet this video. #토트넘틱톡챌린지 ♬ Aesthetic - Tollan Kim
“We've just passed the 200 million mark for impressions—178 million of those were from South Korea,” Cullen said.
Fight for attention
For a venerable club, Spurs has had to fight hard to stay relevant to an increasingly distracted audience, especially millennials. “It really is about putting out the kind of content that our fans will engage with,” contends Cullen.
Spurs then isn’t just fighting for consumers’ attention with other football clubs, but various other entertainment options including video streaming and gaming. The club is constructing a media house to provide the backbone for its players and executives to produce content for media platforms.
Spurs, on July 5, launched a new streaming platform, Spursplay, to access documentaries, archives, and for fans to watch four preseason games live. “We are now a producer of live and curated content,” Cullen adds. “We must be creative and proactive to ensure that we get a good share of that attention economy.”
Equally, Cullen says personalisation of marketing and content is now taken for granted. She contends consumers live on their devices and want products tailored to their specific requirements—else will find an entertainment option that suits their tastes.
“I live on my phone like my millennial sons,” she admits. “I watch a match and at the same time I am scrolling social on my iPad and on my phone. I do most of my shopping on Instagram.”
If she is aware of how these platforms work, she expects the club to keep pace too.
Becoming a global brand
Part of Spurs’ changing marketing focus is because the club—and football—is no longer a UK institution, but a global brand. Cullen points out that the Premier League is the number one sport in four of six continents.
Some of this global brand heft was evident on its recent tour to Korea, where 66,000 tickets sold out in 25 minutes, according to one report. The arrival of talismanic Heung-Min (and So-Hyn Cho in the women’s team) has dramatically escalated Spurs’ recall in Korea.
Cullen says that according to industry estimates, nearly two-thirds of Korean consumers are more likely to take notice of a brand if is affiliated with a Premier League club. “More importantly, 63% are likely to show product purchase preference for brands,” she adds. “It's about not just the visibility, which we know is there, but also the preferability for a brand.”
AIA and APAC
Spurs has also leant on AIA’s network in APAC to extend its reach. For example, Spurs and AIA have coaches who live in the region and conduct clinics. Over a decade, over 80,000 kids have been coached. “The Asian market is hugely important to us,” says Cullen. “We realised (this when) we landed in Korea which has a population of 51 million and 12 million support Spurs— it's almost one in four … is a supporter of our club.”
To build out this global brand, Spurs has made investments on multiple fronts. It has built out a strong squad—it ended up fourth in the EPL and runners-up in last year’s Champions League, the top tournament for clubs across Europe—to make it more appealing to marketing partners and sponsors.
Then, Spurs has also extended its global sponsorship pact with AIA until 2027, making it one of the longest-running sports sponsorships in the Premier League.
“This was a massive pivot for AIA back in 2013, we kicked this off, no pun intended, really as a precursor to healthier, longer and better lives … (as part of our) shift to try and be more relevant and resonant with younger people across Asia,” says Stuart A Spencer, group chief marketing officer for AIA.
Third, the club is also trying to evolve being a purely football brand alone. “We have hosted various other sports and concerts at our new stadium,” explains Cullen. "(This is part of) an expansion of our brand into other entertainment sectors.”
Despite this shift, Spurs continues to value its heritage as a football club. Even though it has invested significantly in its digital development, in-person events matter, Cullen says. “You cannot replace direct engagement and that's why we also tour,” she adds.