A guest article by Claudio Demmer, Manager Innovation at VfL Wolfsburg. He gives insights into the club’s strategy to enter the US market by focusing on their two core strengths.
When thinking about entering a foreign market, the first question we need to ask is “What are the fundamental challenges we face?”. In case of VfL Wolfsburg, we identified the following essential issues: VfL is one club of many in a highly competitive market and faces a rather low sporting interest in the men’s team, also due to the lack of hardly any international stars. Additionally, the club’s US centered initiatives experienced little focus in the past, which makes it impossible to build upon already existing infrastructure. Limited financial and human resources played a role retrospectively as well as nowadays.
We can only be successful in the long run if we find a positioning with clear USPs that are:
relevant – differentiating – and authentic.
Relevant for fans and sponsors, differentiated in terms of finding a market niche and authentic by identifying and deploying the club’s strengths and values.
Focusing on the latter, VfL Wolfsburg has two core strengths compared to the competition:
World-class Women´s football and (Environmental) Sustainability.
“Our only chance in the US market is a convincing, focused and sustainable positioning.”
Claudio Demmer, Manager Innovation at VfL Wolfsburg
Sustainability and female empowerment are promising focal points for an authentic, relevant, and differentiating positioning with current momentum and long-term growth potential that goes beyond sporting performance and thus ensures resilience in the market.
Why are our strengths relevant?
ESG (Environment – Social – Governance) and DEI (Diversity – Equity – Inclusion) including gender equality are strategically important priority issues for US CEOs and their companies and a top priority for decision-makers and thus potential sponsors. Furthermore, both topics have shaped the US sports discourse for a while and will probably continue to do so in the future, which is also reflected in existing initiatives by leagues and associations (e.g., SheBelieves or Green Sports Alliance). US consumers are increasingly embracing sustainability and demanding more sustainability and DEI from brands, resulting in an increasing relevance for consumers and potential fans. Additionally, sponsors support teams that reflect their values. Sustainability and gender equality are very important issues that already limit the selection of potential partners by themselves because common values play an important role in partner selection processes.
Most importantly, the unique role of women’s soccer in the United States supports the club´s extraordinary position in women´s football. The USA has the most successful women’s national team in the world and the interest in first division games is significantly higher than in Germany, for example. The TV and stream viewer numbers are also increasing significantly, and, in the US, women drive more than half of soccer-related social media conversations.
Why are our strengths differentiating?
The only US club with a focused sustainability positioning is the newly started Vermont Green FC (4th division). For more established clubs, it is difficult to achieve a top position in this area. Initiatives by larger clubs focus primarily on the stadium. Obviously, sustainability positioning can only be found very sporadically in younger US clubs.
In addition, female empowerment is implicit in women’s clubs and occasionally actively played out by US clubs. With Angel City FC (NWSL), the first professional club has just started (very successfully) to explicitly place female empowerment as a mission at the center of sporting, partnership, and social activities.
And notably, so far there is no visible competition from European clubs in either area. While no US-initiatives of European clubs can be found on sustainability, the only relevant example on female empowerment is the strategic cooperation between Lyon and OL Reign whereas the focus there is set more on the general technical departments. Of various US academies and camps from European football teams, none have a clear DEI or women’s focus.
Concludingly, if played out holistically and in the right way – sustainability and female empowerment offer potential for effective differentiation from other European and most US clubs being active in the US-market.
Why are our strengths authentic?
Our women’s team has long been one of the most successful in the world and by far the most successful in Germany in recent years. The sportive success is accompanied by substantial work in diversity topics (including gender equality) through our very own Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) department.
We are demonstrably one of the top sustainable clubs in the Bundesliga (see e.g., Imug study) and a leader among European professional clubs. Sustainability is at the heart of our comprehensive CSR commitment and also substantially being worked on by our CSR team (e.g., VfL Wolfsburg has been the first Bundesliga club to publish a certified GRI-Sustainability Report in 2012).
As components of an overarching CSR concept, the two topics of sustainability and the advancement of women support each other and result in a coherent overall picture of the work we provably do at VfL Wolfsburg.
Change perspective – Creating real assets in the core market
A core insight after the strategy process was, that it wouldn´t be sufficient to continue selling Germany-located products and events to US-companies. By doing so, mostly US companies with an interest in the German market or in the comparably low TV-reach in US television could be addressed. Our conclusion was the need to start creating own club assets in the USA to be present with a range of events, products, and societal impacts directly in the market. This would eventually lead to a sustainable penetration of the market and a competitive advantage compared to other European sports sites.
With StrongHER, we have recently started such an US-initiative in the field of female empowerment in Chattanooga (Tennessee), creating on-site impact and making the club accessible for fans and for potential partnerships in the US. StrongHER focuses on supporting young girls from deprived communities, ranging from the ages of ten to 21, to get free access to (football-) training, on-demand mentoring sessions by experienced female athletes and education opportunities, for example through a planned StrongHER scholarship program with local education institutions.
To secure the quality and implementation, we have strategically partnered with strong local organizations, such as Operation Get Active or Chattanooga FC, to create a joint and permanently active ecosystem. The piloting project in Chattanooga serves as a learning journey to us and our partners and we are constantly adjusting. Our goal is to expand StrongHER to several neuralgic locations throughout the USA. By doing so, we seek to become an active member of the community on-site rather than simply acting as a pure sales-organization offering little to no impact.
Do good, but also speak up about it
We seek a good balance between posts on external platforms and on our own channels by considering different project phases, the type of content, and the type of platform we use for communication. Especially for new strategic projects, like StrongHER, in a large and special market like the USA, we need to build credibility and reach first. We get this through external influencers and media. Our posts are shared by us either way and can even be published again later on our own platform as evergreen content.
“Internationally, VfL Wolfsburg is amongst the clubs posting the most women’s football content on Twitter and Facebook.”
Dr. Panagiotis Papageorgiou, CEO and Founder epik GmbH
The more established the project is, the more the own platform is prioritized. In a sentence: When starting a new project, the delta between own and external reach is usually significant and needs to be shifted the other way by sustainable media work.
All in all, we believe that the strategic mix between impact creation and continuous presence on-site as well as smart PR, while focusing on our two identified core strengths, will lead to sustainable success and by holistically established projects like StrongHER, we’re embarking on a journey to become an integral part in US communities.