If you owned a car that continually broke down and failed to get you to your destination, would you trade it in for another one exactly like it? Would you keep buying orange juice that left a bitter taste in your mouth by the time the carton was finished? Would you buy more of the same brand of clothes that wore out too soon or faded in the wash? No. Of course not. Yet sports fans will remain blindly loyal to their teams year in and year out, even when some of those teams never, ever deliver the fleeting glory of a championship season.
Until this year, there was no better example of brand loyalty to a faltering team than fans of the Chicago Cubs. Hadn’t been to a World Series since 1945. Hadn’t won one since 1908. No living fan had ever witnessed the Cubs win it all, yet they remained tried and true supporters of a team affectionately known as the “Cubbies.”
Sports brands inhabit a special niche of brand psychology. Some of the normal principles don’t work. Typically, people buy brands that make them feel better about themselves. A brand that consistently fails to meet expectations is normally rejected rather quickly by users, and will fail completely if it can’t find a successful niche. Something else keeps fans loyal to a team, often for a lifetime, no matter what its level of success.
Tribalism can play a significant role and can be defined by local pride, or a legacy within the family of rooting for a certain team. To be a fan of the team from your area is to be proud of your area as a whole. But, there are plenty of examples of people who root for teams from places they have never been, an attraction often formed when they were young and then carried through their adult years.
What made the Cubs brand interesting to many of us is that it took on a kind of national underdog status after a time. People sympathized with their continuing plight. For some minor fans, it was almost amusing to keep track of their failures. For others, it was easy enough to hope for their success because there was little or no chance the Cubs would hurt your own team significantly.
But now, with a thrilling Game 7 World Series victory, the Cubs have exorcised the demons of losing. Their century-long odyssey is finally over, yet, in so doing, they have also dramatically changed their brand. They are lovable losers and underdogs no more. Of course, their core fans will feel little need for adjustment, but what of the rest of the casual fan base who had mild affection for their losing streak amid the ivy-covered walls of Wrigley field? Will these fans fully embrace the Cubs as “their” team and root for them to continue winning, or will they shift their sympathies to another long-suffering franchise?
Ironically, that team could be the one the Cubs beat to break their skein of failure, the Cleveland Indians. The Indians last won a World Series in 1948, a mere 68 years ago, and have had three more chances since then. Is that futile enough to take over the brand of national underdog from the Cubs? We will have to wait and see. But even the most loyal Cubs fans may feel like their team has lost a certain likability by winning it all.
As published in the Central Penn Business Journal and the Reading Eagle.