Fannovation! Why Supporters Have The Best Ideas

Our attention was caught this week by a piece on some of the ways brands are trying to innovate around the World Cup. It’s a great time for limited edition ranges, packs and flavours. In some cases there’s a generic football theme – football cakes, for instance. In others – those brands, like Budweiser, with official sponsorshop deals – marketers make the most of the opportunity to show off their association. And there’s always a Russian theme available too – like the “Moscow sushi” or beef stronganoff instant pasta in the Grocer article.

How many of these innovations will still be around after the tournament ends? All of them are, basically, promotional efforts rather than brands aiming for long-term innovation. Yes, beef stronganoff pasta might become a surprise hit, but it’s unlikely it would have got far in a standard innovation process.

These launches obey the principle of Fluent Innovation – the excitingly new anchored in the reassuringly familiar.  But they are borrowing their novelty from the World Cup – and when it goes away, so does the excitement. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – limited packs are a time-honoured way of creating a little promotional excitement.

But to learn something about Fluent Innovation from the World Cup you have to look at the fans, not the brands.

Football supporters are always looking for new ways to cheer on their team and show their loyalties. And a football crowd is a massive social laboratory, where new ideas can be quickly transmitted through the mass group.

But in order to achieve that transmission, a new idea also needs to be Fluent – rapidly understandable and recognisable. In a crowd, there’s no time for a pitch or an explanation. You see what other people are doing. You either get it, and copy it. Or…you don’t.

So it’s no surprise that the kind of innovations which emerge from World Cups and other football situations are Fluent Innovations – 80% familiar, 20% new.

The practise of football chants, for instance, is like a folk version of Fluent Innovation. Each chant is based in a familiar tune, from old standards like “Volare” or “When The Saints Go Marching In” to pop classics of the last few decades. Only the lyrics change. Want to hear a crowd bellowing along to the tune of the Village People’s “Go West”? Visit any British football ground.

So you’d expect the World Cup itself to create its share of innovations. And you wouldn’t be disappointed. In 1986, in Mexico, crowds in stadiums amused themselves during dull stretches of games by rapidly standing up and sitting down, an action that travelled around the stadium, creating huge ripples coursing through the crowd. The host country gave the practise its name: a Mexican wave. The fluent practise of putting your hands in the air, given the innovative twist of copying your neighbour to create the wave.

And what about that curse of the modern football match, the ear-splitting drone of the vuvuzela? They were originally a South African fan thing, but they caught on with international audiences visiting South Africa for the 2010 World Cup. Again, here was a traditional part of football – the whistle or rattle to roar on your side – given an innovative upgrade.

The key to Fluency Is speed – the quicker you get something, the easier you recognise it, the more likely you are to choose it. Sporting crowds are the ultimate proving ground for this theory. New ideas have to be immediately understood – or they simply don’t work. For marketers, it’s a reminder that however good your idea, it won’t go anywhere unless you show it to real people and make sure they get it right away.


At System1, we help the world’s largest advertisers make confident, creative decisions that lead to transformational business results. Our powerful ad testing platform (Test Your Ad) and our idea testing platform (Test Your Idea) help brands predict the commercial potential of ads and ideas. Complementing TYA and TYI is Test Your Brand, our brand testing tool which measures the impact of ads and ideas on brand health, ensuring long-term brand growth through predictive success.
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