Guest Blogger

My friend John Hughes and I used to talk about those posters you’d see in business premises proudly proclaiming ‘new’ corporate values. You know the sort of thing: bright colourful things aimed at arousing people with concepts such as ‘team work’, ‘passion’ or some other superficial nonsense.

John would greet such a sight with a practised sigh (he is a Newcastle United fan after all) and declare that anything nailed to a wall wasn’t likely to live for long, because he believed that values have to be lived to be effective.

As an assessor for a Service Excellence awards scheme, I recognised values as a set of beliefs, principles or guiding precepts.  They’re not ‘slogans’.  They’re not expedient ‘initiatives’ but an insight into what makes an organisation tick – what makes it different – and they have a business purpose too. They underline why someone should entrust their custom to them.

The concept of values has always interested me. I’d say ‘fascinated’ but if I had a friend who was ‘fascinated’ by the development of the concept of values in growing organisations, I’d probably recommend that he or she got out more.

I know that values can’t be ‘implemented’ from above. They’re either there or they’re not. If an organisation decides to explore its values, it talks to its people, opens a dialogue with its customers and other stakeholders. It looks for instinctive associations, words, expressions, images – anything that conveys what makes it special and marks it out as different.

Values have a key role to play in supporting a business brand and, much to the amusement of Private Eye these days; you even hear many companies talk about their DNA now. It’s MORE than values; ‘it’s physiologically who we are.’

For the genuine customer-driven organisation, these concepts are serious because they drive engagement, sales and growth. The customer experience is designed to project the company’s values and measurement will trace a connection between these values being ‘lived’ and customer advocacy.

Having values also gives your organisation direction. They act as a filter for short and long-term decision making. They guide the complaint handler and they also inform strategic development.

So why do so few football clubs promote their values?

This is especially baffling when you consider that most of the traditional businesses that use values are often just peddling a commodity or a service that we don’t get excited about.  Football, by contrast, has a ‘product’ that defies description, but certainly transcends the 90 minutes on the pitch.

Over the years in surveys, focus groups and chats over a pint of two, I’ve asked supporters what their club – and going to the match – means to them.

The answers are sometimes deeply moving. Sometimes they are specific football memories: a Cup win, a goal or a special moment, but more often than not they are memories of close family members: Mum, Dad, Granddad, best friends, etc.  It’s what we did together then, what we do together now: our routines, rituals and associations and our irrational but meaningful habits.

A consequence of this deeper meaning is that supporters sub-consciously endow their clubs with clear values.  Obvious to you and I maybe, but the vast majority of clubs seem to be oblivious to the opportunity it presents.

A few are, though. Middlesbrough fans helped the club articulate theirs: honesty being among them (reflected in the ‘Honesty Flags’ borne by their youngest fans during games), while Doncaster Rovers understands the implications of the club values too.

You can see why this sense of self-deprecation is strong at that club, where a former chairman once attempted to burn down their original and beloved Belle Vue home for the insurance money as the club hurtled towards the conference, whereupon they hurtled back up again (via a play off win at Wembley against their big rivals Leeds United).

Rovers fans are ready for anything, so they’ve developed their own take on Kipling:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same

 … or … ‘just a pub team having a laugh.’

This may only be one strand of the club’s DNA, but it’s been recently reflected in things like their 18-second summary of the ‘highlights’ of a dreadful 0-0 v Fleetwood Town (with close to a million views on YouTube now) and the decision to allow a perennially unhappy fan to tweet this season’s first new signing from his own twitter account. Ultimately it’s underpinned the work done in partnership with fans to bring to life the South Stand at the Keepmoat (do a search on ‘Black Bank’ and enjoy).

When I first started working in football 16 years ago, I have to confess that values weren’t at the top of my list. I was more interested in understanding the statement (often uttered at me in a defensive manner) that football WASN”T LIKE any other business, so that any ideas I had about being nice to supporters and operating principles like transparency, accountability and dialogue could be kept to myself.

In one respect of course, it IS a business, since clubs are formally established business entities and also because, if they’re not run sustainably, they could go bust but in another, more understandable way, they were right. The nature of the relationship with their supporters means that football is unlike any other business.

Julian Jenkins (ex-Cardiff City, Servette FC and lately founder of Fanalyse) illustrated that by telling me that no one ever telephoned their local Tesco asking for their granddad’s ashes to be sprinkled around the car park.

So here lies the contradiction: businesses use values to underpin engagement, sales and growth, where the ‘product’ is often a fairly meaningless commodity. Football, by contrast, has the most meaningful and emotionally engaging ‘product’ of them all and sells ALL OF THIS – as a ticket.

The fact that so few club owners understand the nature of values, the meaning of their club to supporters and the opportunity this presents is evident in much of what I read about the game these days.

I’m reminded of Ana’s comments, upon completing 30 consecutive visits to Football League clubs in the pilot for the Family Excellence Awards back in 2006. ‘Which one did you like best?’ I asked blithely. ‘None of them’ she replied, ‘they’re all the same: same song, different lyrics.’

It wasn’t until she saw her first game at Anfield that she felt the stirrings of something bigger than the football: the singing of You’ll Never Walk Alone.

So it was that Liverpool FC misread of fan sentiment when they announced next season’s ticket prices. But what has followed in the last 24 hours has been revelatory for me. The words of the club’s owners have not only restored the faith of many thousands of Liverpool fans, but they’ve also struck a deeper chord. They suggest an ownership team conscious of the club’s traditional values: the holy trinity of players, fans and manager and the promise to the disenfranchised and to the excluded: you’ll never walk alone.

So what does your club stand for? What are your club’s values? Do they resonate with supporters? Or are they absent and / or routinely compromised?

Strategic engagement begins with meaning and identity. The lack of values only provides a vacuum likely to be filled with compromise and expediency. So I’d implore all clubs to sit down and start that conversation with supporters NOW.

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