Sunderland hit all the right notes with kit launch: Q and A with Head of Digital Stuart Vose
Last season, Sunderland AFC’s 10-year stay in the Premier League finally came to an end, and coming to terms with that reality is never an easy thing, both for fans and the club itself.
The for the link between the two, however, those who are employed by the club, but who manage its public output or engage with the fans, it’s all about hitting the right note at such a time.
Last week, perhaps the biggest chance to put that into practice arrived for the club with the launch of next season’s kit: the jersey the Black Cats will wear for their first season in the second tier for over a decade.
Sunderland weren’t the only club to launch their kit this week, of course, and with football fans firmly between two seasons right now, the summer rush for fan engagement has started: clubs are taking the opportunity to use the lull in the on-field action to ensure their fans are happy, and promote their sponsors, too.
From Wolverhampton Wanderers to PSV Eindhoven, some launches hit very different notes this week, but Sunderland’s was one of the launches which stood out. Theirs featured a Facebook Live stream with two amateur football teams (Dawdon Welfare Park FC and Hall Farm Glasshus FC) taking to the field at Ashbrooke Cricket Club, one of Sunderland’s former homes, to play in a game to show off the new kit.
The kit itself is heavily influenced by the club’s history, taking inspiration from the earliest kits the club’s footballers used to wear, and probably hoping to remind fans of a time when Sunderland were a team who won English titles. Such links with heritage, tradition and the fans are usually gold standards for effective kit launches, but that’s difficult to achieve, especially if retweets and likes are the measures of success.
The result was, of course, a little bit of social media buzz, but the difficulties around engaging with fans are obvious when your club has suffered such a poor season and the mood, obviously, isn’t high. It was arguably more important that the launch hit the right notes.
Sunderland AFC’s head of digital, Stuart Vose, talked to Digital Sport about the launch and the thought process behind the launch. Below is the short Q and A, and it’s worth bearing in mind the planning that goes into the kit launch. It’s clear that Sunderland’s approach – and it was a very successful one, too – centered around fans and heritage rather than a quick gimmick intended to go viral. And there’s surely a lesson in that.
#SAFC's new home kit rolls back the years to feature narrower stripes as worn during the 1880s
— Sunderland AFC (@SunderlandAFC) June 13, 2017
After the season that has just gone, how important was it to connect and engage with local fans with the launch?
Engaging with fans is vital at any time, but particularly now given the backdrop. The supporters are the lifeblood of the club and as such we wanted to put them front and centre of the launch. Saturday and Sunday league players, and the families who support them week in, week out, are the heartbeat of the game in the UK and as a professional club we we felt it was important that we recognise this. The players’ reaction when we told them of our idea was testament to their passion for the club – they were so grateful to be involved and excited about the launch. So much of football’s spotlight falls on players so we wanted to switch this around and give the fans the glory.
Did you work closely with sponsors Adidas and Dafabet? And how did they help support the campaign across their platforms?
Both Dafabet and adidas are very supportive and were fully behind the concept and plan. The internal teamwork across the club was exceptional. In terms of adidas, we briefed them on the narrative behind the project early in the process and worked alongside them as we firmed up details. They also supported us on the day, including tweeting Dawdon striker Robbie Bird – who scored a hat-trick – suggesting a boot deal!
From the Dafabet angle, they were very much on board also we were careful from a branding perspective to give them maximum exposure and supplied the national media with imagery via Getty Images to spread the reach as widely as possible. Digitally, the numbers speak for themselves – at the time of writing the Facebook Live video has achieved a reach of almost 400k, with around 1m impressions across social media as a whole.
Are there plans to follow up on this grassroots approach during the summer and into next season? And how important is social media in engaging with younger fans at the moment, and over the coming season?
Engaging with supporters at the local level is a vital part of our strategy moving forward. We have begun using the tagline ‘Wearside by side’ – both referring to the region in which the club is situated and the connection between the club and fans we wish to foster. By working ‘side by side’ – in partnership – the club and fans can achieve great things together.
In terms of engaging with younger fans, this has always been very important and is becoming even more so. It’s key that we understand how to communicate with our younger fans, who are digital natives, and we are increasingly focused on Instagram and particularly Snapchat as ways of reaching them. Young fans now are constant content consumers and it’s our responsibility as a club to make sure they’re catered for.
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