Women’s boxing has increased in popularity since its inclusion in the London 2012 Summer Olympics and due to the continuous promotional efforts of pioneering athletes like Katie Taylor, Clarissa Shields, and Amanda Serrano (Graham et al., 2017; ESPN, 2022). In a previous study, I have empirically analysed and discussed the attributes of women’s boxing that are important to viewers and predict their intention to watch an event; the study further recommended general marketing and communications tactics that can strengthen the sport’s viewing intention (see Mereu, 2021). Nevertheless, given the ubiquitous presence and influence of social media (Ryan, 2020), a dedicated analysis of its influence on the intention to watch a certain boxer fight becomes legitimate. Thus, this study examines how the brand experience around the popular Australian boxer Ebanie ‘Blonde Bomber’ Bridges can affect social media users to watch her fights. The analysis shows that sensory and affective social media contents directly influence viewing intention and are also mediated by perceived personality. However, behavioural content is mediated via Bridges’ overall brand equity and has only indirect effect on viewing intention; moreover, intellectual content has no effect on viewing intention. Lastly, Bridges’ perceived personality has direct influence on her followers’ intentions to watch her bouts and on her overall brand equity.
Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter have established themselves as effective marketing and communications channels for professional athletes to reach invested fans, as well as casual followers (Sanderson, 2011; Sutera, 2013). Batra and Keller (2016) note that social media has great influence on communication outcomes along the entire customer journey, especially for generating awareness, creating imagery and personality, building trust, eliciting emotions, and connecting people. Athletes have, therefore, the opportunity to create and foster a social media following and, eventually, influence them to engage in a desired behaviour, like buying a product or watching an event (Yocco, 2016; Sokolova and Kefi, 2020).
This also applies to professional boxers, such as Ebanie ‘Blonde Bomber’ Bridges. She made her professional boxing debut only two years before Matchroom Boxing, a leading boxing promoter, matched her with British boxing prospect Shannon Courtenay for a Championship bout in 2021 (Fox Sports, 2019; Matchroom Boxing, 2022). Although Bridges lost that fight, she established herself as an intriguing boxing personality that can entertain and polarize audiences with her rhetoric and her revealing outfits. In 2022, she became IBF Bantamweight World Champion, cementing her status as a fans favourite (Marca, 2022).
Building upon the notion that social media can effectively drive business and commerce (Ryan, 2020), in the case of Bridges, it means that promoting her brand through various social media channels can influence followers to buy tickets to go see her fight, to subscribe to a broadcaster like DAZN that shows her fights, or to buy her merchandise. Promotional efforts can be strengthened by applying a brand experience approach to social media content in order to produce a balanced content output that persuades people to engage in desired behaviours (see Brakus et al., 2009; Yocco, 2016). This leads to the guiding research question for this article:
What are the brand experience characteristics on Bridges’ social media channels that influence her followers’ intention to view her fights, and what are the mediating variables within the construct?
2 Theoretical background
Figure 1 illustrates the conceptual model utilised to empirically examine the research question through primary data collected via an online questionnaire from a convenience sample of 69 social media users, who follow Bridges at least on one social media channel. The conceptual model includes the following variables: brand love, brand experience, perceived personality, overall brand equity, and viewing intention. The aim of the research is to investigate the influences that persuade Bridges’ social media followers to watch her fights either in the venue or through a broadcast.
2.1 Brand love
Carroll and Ahuvia (2006) define brand love as “the degree of passionate emotional attachment a satisfied consumer has for a particular trade name” (p. 81). In the case at hand, brand love refers to how passionate Bridges’ social media followers are about her as an athlete or celebrity, which may influence the perceived experience around the contents posted on her social media channels. Various academic research discusses the influence that brand experience has on brand love (e.g. Roy et al., 2013; Huang, 2017; Prentice et al., 2019). However, in spectator sports, viewers may perceive the experience differently based on how loyal or committed they are towards an athlete or team (see Giulianotti, 2002). Hence, brand love can affect active engagement of consumers (Bergkvist and Bech-Larsen, 2010), which denotes a causal relationship with the intellectual and behavioural brand experience dimensions (see Pine and Gilmore, 2019). Similarly, the perception of aesthetics and emotions can be influenced by a person’s attachment and identification with the brand (Pons et al., 2013). Therefore, the following can be hypothesised:
- H1: The brand love held by Bridges’ social media followers positively influences the (a) sensory, (b) affective, (c) intellectual, and (d) behavioural brand experience dimension.
2.2 Brand experience
Holbrook and Hirschman (1982) introduced the idea that offering a dedicated experience to consumers around a service or product, would add significant value and distinction to a brand through consumption elements based on symbolism, hedonism, and aesthetics. Pine and Gilmore (1998; 2019) delved deeper into the concept to provide the notion of the ‘experience economy’, which offers a more in-depth elaboration and introduced the four realms of a brand experience, namely, esthetic (sic), entertainment, educational, and escapism; the realms are can be differentiated through passive and active consumer participation, as well as by the level of immersion or absorption of the experience. Schmitt (1999) viewed the brand experience specifically from a marketing perspective and introduced the concept of ‘experiential marketing’, which, nevertheless, closely parallels the above-mentioned realms.
In their seminal paper, Brakus et al. (2009) define the brand experience as “sensations, feelings, cognitions, and behavioral responses evoked by brand-related stimuli that are part of a brand’s design and identity, packaging, communications, and environments” (p. 52) and find that a brand experience can influence brand loyalty, as well as brand personality. Furthermore, brand experience can influence the overall brand equity (Zarantonello and Schmitt, 2013).
Schmitt (1999) defines the individual brand experience dimensions, which he calls strategic experiential modules (SEMs), as follows: The sensory dimension refers to marketing tactics that “may be used to differentiate [brands], to motivate customers, and to add value to products through, for example, aesthetics or excitement” (p. 64); the affective dimension “appeals to customers’ inner feelings and emotions, with the objective of creating affective experiences that range from mildly positive moods linked to a brand to strong emotions of joy and pride” (p. 66); the intellectual dimension “appeals to the intellect with the objective of creating cognitive, problem-solving experiences that engage customers creatively”, and it “appeals to target customers’ convergent and divergent thinking through surprise, intrigue and provocation” (p. 67); lastly, the behavioural dimension encompasses an active and relational component and can therefore be understood to enrich “customers’ lives by targeting their [active] experiences, showing them alternative ways of doing things, alternative lifestyles and interactions” (p. 68) and letting them be part of a broader social system.
For the case at hand, it means that Bridges’ can create a holistic social media brand experience by publishing content based on appealing to the visual and auditory sense, e.g. photos and videos emphasising her appearance as a boxer and athlete, as well as on her physical attractiveness (see Figure 5), eliciting emotions, e.g. engaging in entertaining banter with possible opponents, conveying detailed information on upcoming events, as well as other products and services, and offering a virtual escape for fans and followers by connecting and engaging with them (see Figure 7) and letting them connect with each other.
The above-mentioned discussion points to the following hypotheses:
- H2: The perceived sensory brand experience dimension on Bridges’ social media positively influences (a) her perceived personality, (b) overall brand equity, and (c) viewing intention for future boxing events.
- H3: The perceived affective brand experience dimension on Bridges’ social media positively influences (a) her perceived personality, (b) overall brand equity, and (c) viewing intention for future boxing events.
- H4: The perceived intellectual brand experience dimension on Bridges’ social media positively influences (a) her perceived personality, (b) overall brand equity, and (c) viewing intention for future boxing events.
- H5: The perceived behavioural brand experience dimension on Bridges’ social media positively influences (a) her perceived personality, (b) overall brand equity, and (c) viewing intention for future boxing events.
2.3 Perceived personality
According to Aaker (1997), brand personality refers to “the set of human characteristics associated with a brand” (p. 347). Such brand personality characteristics can influence loyalty towards the brand (Brakus et al., 2009), hence, strengthen the intention to engage in a certain desired behaviour, such as watching a women’s boxing event with Ebanie Bridges. Although Aaker (1997) investigated brand personality characteristics in the context of tangible brands, which, may arguably not directly be applicable to athlete brands, Carlson et al. (2008) examined the elements proposed by Aaker (1997) and concluded that the most applicable in a sports context are the characteristics wholesome, imaginative, successful, charming, and tough. However, based on a critical observation of Bridges’ social media posts, and leaning on the conclusion of Carlson et al. (2008), the most appropriate personality characteristics for this research are original, exciting, competent, charming, and tough. Following the discourse above, it can be hypothesized:
- H6: The brand personality perceived by Bridges’ social media followers positively influences (a) overall brand equity and (b) viewing intention for future boxing events.
2.4 Overall brand equity
Brand equity can be seen from various perspectives. For this study, we apply the consumer-based behavioural view as suggested by Yoo and Donthu (2001), who define brand equity as “consumers’ different response between a focal brand and an unbranded product when both have the same level of marketing stimuli and product attributes” (p. 1). This means, Bridges’ brand equity is based upon how much more her followers prefer to choose her products, i.e. pay to watch her bouts or purchase her merchandise, over similar offerings from other boxers. Brand equity is found to influence brand loyalty and purchase intentions (Nam et al., 2011; Jalilvand et al., 2011). Hence, the following hypothesis is defined:
- H7: Bridges’ overall brand equity positively influences her followers’ intention to watch future boxing events.
3 Respondents of the study
Primary data was collected through a self-administered online questionnaire consisting of 29 items for the variables discussed in the previous section, as well as an additional 4 questions on the demography of the participants. Responses were measured via a 7-point Likert-scale ranging from 1 (disagree very strongly) to 7 (agree very strongly). Twitter users, who follow Ebanie Bridges, were asked to compile the questionnaire; 69 valid responses were collected.
Figure 2 provides an overview of the surveyed sample. A predominantly male participation was recorded with 91.3%; female participation was 8.7%. 40.6% of respondents are 35 to 44 years old; the second largest age group consists of 45 to 54-year-olds with 27.5%, closely followed by 25 to 34-year-olds with 23.2%. Most respondents (87%) prefer to follow Bridges on Twitter and live in the UK (68.1%), followed by Ireland (11.6%) and the USA (11.6%).
In summary, this convenience sample represents the views of a mainly male audience that is between 25 and 55 years of age and lives in Great Britain.
4 Analysis and recommendations
This section will analyse the conceptual framework in regard to the hypothesized causal relationships illustrated in Figure 1 and discussed in the theory section. Figure 3 offers visual support for the following analysis and depicts the applied conceptual framework with the standardised regression coefficients (β), i.e. explaining the strengths of the effects between the variables, R-squared values (R2), i.e. exemplifying how close the data fits onto the given regression line, and significance (p), i.e. indicating how likely the effect is to occur under the proposed hypothesis. The analysis aims to inform recommendations for practitioners on how to improve the social media brand experience in order to strengthen the influence on a desired behavioural outcome.
As hypothesised in H1, the brand love held by Bridges’ fans and followers has a significant and positive influence on the sensory dimension (H1a, β=0.928, p<0.001), affective dimension (H1b, β=0.950, p<0.001), intellectual dimension (H1c, β=0.923, p<0.001), and behavioural dimension (H1d, β=0.860, p<0.001). It is noteworthy that brand love has a very strong effect on all brand experience dimensions. This means, the more passionate and emotionally attached a satisfied social media follower is with the Blonde Bomber, the more intense the brand experience may be perceived. Since the four recorded regression weights for brand love are very strong in this study, all brand experience dimensions are heightened.
Looking at the social media brand experience provided by the Blonde Bomber, the computed data demonstrates that both, the sensory dimension and the affective dimension, have a significant and positive influence on perceived personality (H2a; H3a), as well as on viewing intention for future boxing events (H2c; H3c). Especially, affective social media experiences influence viewing intention in an extraordinarily strong manner (H3c, β=0.951, p<0.05), which implies that Bridges can utilise emotional content to persuade followers to engage in a desired behaviour. An example is provided with an Instagram post in Figure 4: Bridges poses with her newly-won World Champion belt right after winning the respective fight and thanks her fans and followers with a heartfelt message.
However, the affective dimension has a rather moderate effect on perceived personality (H3a, β=0.359, p<0.01), meaning that emotional social media posts may only somewhat impact perceived personality. Sensory content, on the other hand, has a strong impact on perceived personality (H2a, β=0.705, p<0.001), which means that by posting content that emphasises Bridges’ looks in any context, e.g. elegant, athletic, casual, or sexy, strengthens the personality perceived by her followers. Figure 5 offers three examples in regard to outfit that highlight some of Bridges’ personality traits: a rather revealing outfit (left), business-casual attire (middle), and boxing apparel (right).
Similarly, sensory experiences have a rather strong effect on viewing intention (H2c, β=0.598, p<0.001); it can be argued that continuously emphasising Bridges’ appearance on social media with dedicated photos and videos influences the intention of her followers to watch her fights to a considerable degree. Lastly, both, the sensory dimension and the affective dimension, do not have significant influence on Bridges’ overall brand equity (H2b; H3b). Hence, the above-mentioned efforts do not affect how much her followers would prefer to watch her fight or buy her products compared to another female boxer.
Taking a closer look at the intellectual dimension, the analysis shows that it has no significant effect on perceived personality (H4a), nor on overall brand equity (H4b) or on viewing intention (H4c). This means that the surveyed sample cannot be incited to view Bridges’ fights with social media posts that seek to engage them with detailed information or through surprise, intrigue and provocation (Schmitt, 1999); the same applies in regard to perceived personality and overall brand equity. Nonetheless, such content could contribute to other outcomes (cf. Pine and Gilmore, 1998; Schmitt, 1999). Thus, it can be recommended to post intellectual content with information on a service or product framed with a certain degree of surprise, intrigue or provocation. This could be the banter between two opponents filled with unexpected and exciting arguments used to promote a possible forthcoming bout, which should entertain fans and followers and persuade them to watch the fight. A specific example is offered in Figure 6, that shows a heated conversation between Shannon Courtenay and Ebanie Bridges during the build-up to their WBA World Bantamweight Title clash in April 2021. Various snippets from the 14-minute talk were used on other social media channels to promote the rivalry and, hence, the fight.
Furthermore, the behavioural dimension is found to have a significant and positive influence with rather moderate strength on Bridge’s overall brand equity (H5b, β=0.329, p<0.05); however, it is found to be non-significant in regard to perceived personality (H5a) and viewing intention (H5c). Thus, offering followers the opportunity to interact and engage with the Blonde Bomber, as well as bringing them closer to a specific lifestyle promoted by Bridges, and allowing them to be part of a wider community around the Australian boxer, can affect the brand equity; in this study, overall brand equity functions as a mediator that positively influences the intention to watch a Bridges bout to a rather strong degree (H7, β=0.691, p<0.001). Figure 7 exemplifies how Bridges offers her followers the opportunity to ask her question through Instagram stories, which she then answers. This also leverages parasocial interaction, which refers to the illusory friendship between Bridges’ followers and herself, hence, strengthening the bond between them and fostering the intention to engage in a desired behaviour (Sokolova and Kefi, 2019).
Lastly, perceived personality has a significant, positive, and extraordinarily strong influence on overall brand equity (H6a, β=0.958, p<0.001) and viewing intention (H6b, β=0.925, p<0.001). This illustrates that accentuating Bridges’ personality in social media posts will considerably strengthen the preference held by her followers to choose fights with and products from the Blonde Bomber over other similar athletes, and it will substantially boost the intention to view her fights; see Figure 5 for examples.
This study investigated the brand experience characteristics on Bridges’ social media channels that influence her followers’ intention to view her fights, as well as the mediating variables within the construct. It was found that the brand love felt by Bridges’ followers has great influence on the degree to which they perceive the offered brand experience on social media. Moreover, only sensory and affective content have direct influence on the intention to watch Bridges’ fights. Specifically, affective content has extraordinarily strong direct influence on viewing intention, which implies that Bridges should focus on posting content that elicits emotions. Sensory content has also rather strong influence on viewing intention, which can be fostered by emphasising the Blonde Bomber’s appearance in various settings. Similarly, only sensory and affective content influence perceived personality to a strong (sensory) and rather moderate degree (affective). However, perceived personality shows extraordinarily strong influence on viewing intention and overall brand equity. Overall brand equity in turn functions as a mediator for behavioural content that otherwise does not influence viewing intention directly. Although the study found that intellectual content does not influence viewing intention or any of the possible mediators, various literature would recommend to create a holistic brand experience and publish content that engages followers creatively or with surprise, intrigue or provocation.
Although an analysis of how well Ebanie Bridges applies the brand experience notion to her social media channels wasn’t part of this study, I did look at her content across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok and can offer an informal assessment based on the above-mentioned findings. It is safe to state that Ebanie does a very good job in managing her social media and publishing relevant content. She uses aesthetics very well, which is important, given such content is highly influential in her case. However, Ebanie could put a bit more emphasis on emotional posts, since they have extraordinary influence on viewing intention. Also, she engages very well with her following, which strengthens her parasocial interaction and, hence, her brand equity. Lastly, she does not publish much intellectual content, which, according to the findings of this study, does not have significant influence on viewing intention nor brand equity anyway. Again, all in all, very well done, Ms. Blonde Bomber.
The findings of this research are based on a data set of 69 respondents that are mainly male, 25 to 54 years of age, and from Great Britain. It can therefore not be regarded as representative of the entire social media following of Ebanie Bridges. Furthermore, although internal consistency of the utilised scales is good-to-excellent, the model fit recorded rather poor fit with CMIN/DF=1.964, RMSEA=.096, and CFI=.900. Thus, the model will need adjustment, if used in further studies.
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