Those of us who consider ourselves sports fans represent one of the most brand loyal audiences in the world today. We wear merchandise, learn chants and songs, and regularly give time and money to cheer on our favorite teams. After all, being a fan of a team plays into the basic human need of belonging and the competitive nature of sports creates an “us versus them” mentality that brings us closer to our chosen fan base – creating the classic brand tribe.
Despite those feelings of rivalry, however, sports fans and brands are also connected by what they share. The brands themselves are part of a larger parent brand, like the NFL or NBA, and the fans by a shared love of the sport itself. These connections are most apparent in instances created by the parent brands such as NFL Crucial Catch or Salute to Service. But, in rarer moments, they can be seen when fans unite around the sport.
One of those unexpected moments came in early 2023 when Damar Hamlin suffered cardiac arrest on the field during Monday Night Football causing the NFL to suspend, and ultimately cancel, the matchup.
Immediately players and fans from all 32 NFL teams became fans of one. Support poured in online both in the form of social media posts and donations to Hamlin’s charity. The charity, which has raised nearly $9 million in three weeks, is still receiving support with captions like “Giants Nation Stands with Bills Mafia” and “This Steeler fan is thrilled to donate to your fundraiser.”
By the next day, all 32 teams had changed their social media icons to a shared “Pray for Damar” icon in Bills colors. From a branding perspective, this represented a departure from conventional brand strategy that is focused on promoting one’s own brand. This rally around one player created a moment for fans and teams to come together as one – united without division.
For brands, this is a good reminder that a disciplined brand strategy can prepare organizations to face a lot of unexpected scenarios, but it is impossible to be prepared for everything. In coming together behind Damar Hamlin, #3 for the Buffalo Bills, the NFL and its teams showed the power of fluidity when the moment calls for it and the importance of humanity from the brands we associate ourselves with.