There is a unique challenge in juggling the values of the team against the values of the brand. In fact when it comes to the team, the New Zealand Rugby’s public relations department doesn’t use the term “brand” at all.
“They are a team not a brand,” explains NZRFU Marketing Manager, Fraser Holland. “And the team’s values are absolutely about winning. Whereas, the brand’s values are respect, humility, power, heritage, inspiration and commitment – Nowhere there do you see winning.”
However, the All Blacks' image is, of course, very carefully managed and monitored by a scrum of internal and external consultants. Everything from the logo and individual player’s websites to expectations of the fans themselves is under strict brand management. “My biggest job is managing adversity and triumph. Because the team can win or lose and I have no control over that. When the team is winning, the brand is strong. When the team loses, it’s a challenge,” says Holland.
For instance the loss of the 1999 World Cup semi-finals presented just such a challenge. The marketing strategy for 2000 focused on effectively managing people’s expectations, and putting in foundations to make sure the brand remained strong despite this apparent weakening. Luckily, as Holland points out, the history of the team supports an overall strong brand image.
From famed captain Dave Gallaher, who lead the All Blacks to victory against the Home Counties in 1905 and later died on the battlefields of World War I, to the traditional Maori dance, the haka, the All Blacks have shrewdly fashioned their history, tradition, skill, and verve into one very strong, very powerful brand.
Take the haka. Simply translated it's a dance. But after nearly a century of performing this in-your-face, fiercely passionate pre-match ritual, it turns into something much more powerful, something beyond words, something that speaks directly to the emotions. In other words, a super-effective branding tool. To an opposing team it must be chilling to face so much intensity, so much conviction, and, frankly, so much testosterone seconds before the start of a match. Perhaps this explains why when the All Blacks first performed the haka on the 1905 away tour they resoundingly defeated the Brits. Returning home victorious with their curious dance and earned reputation, the All Black's were ready to serve as a formidable representative for a pint-sized but proud island.
But individual sports figures are notoriously hard to control on and off the field, and the image of the team as a whole has not always been friendly. In fact for years, pundits associated the team with words like cold, arrogant and remote – hardly warm feelings for a brand but excellent for a competitive edge in sports. So how did they manage to turn it around?
Every piece of communication from brochure to television program has to go through a brand approval process to ensure that what is communicated to the fan is in line with the values of the brand. And it doesn’t stop there. In applying 360 degree branding, the team itself is monitored with regard to individual promotional activities such as websites, interviews and book deals. If an individual believes he is stronger than the team, he will be dropped. This immediately distinguishes the All Blacks from American sports teams where very often the individual is allowed to define the team… no matter how bad his on- or off-the-field behavior becomes.
So is it hard to co-opt a team of highly competitive players to represent a nation, sport and team so professionally? So far so good, but if American sport represents a trend for other nations, NZRFU will have a number of challenges as it moves forward. Holland thinks they’ve got a bit of breathing room though since they’ve only been professional for the last six years. “As a relative newcomer to professional sport, we can cast a vigilant eye toward existing trends in other countries – particularly the US.”