All Blacks winning brand war

First published in Fairfax Unlimited 26 August 2014

With my (pathetically) limited knowledge of sport, even I knew to look no further than the mighty All Blacks for my Australian marketing column this week.

Over the weekend I studied up on rugby trivia (or rather ‘not so trivia’) and tried to understand just how the All Blacks managed to build such a powerful brand, much greater than any Australian sporting one, despite the size difference of our two nations.

To my amateur sporting eye, in the last decade it feels like Australia’s heroes have turned down the volume. Meanwhile, the All Blacks have meticulously and expertly transformed into a true global brand.

Despite only ever watching a handful of rugby games from start to finish, even I feel total awe from the moment the All Blacks come on to do the haka. It’s one of the rare moments my Aussie-born kids fall silent and seem genuinely mesmerised.

In 2011, global brand valuation firm Brand Finance put the All Blacks’s worth at $108 million – a very respectable number compared with the $51 million value of Australia’s highest ranked sporting brand, the Penrith Panthers. However it does fall a long way short of the $1 billion worth of German sports club FC Bayern M√ľnchen.

(As an aside, the Penrith Panthers’ value, while judged on performance, sponsorship, loyalty and brand awareness, also takes into account $100 million in annual revenue from pokies, adding another fun dimension to Australian sport.)

In my view the All Blacks’ brand management deserves its own place in the sporting hall of fame. Or at the very least, some dedicated Harvard Business School case studies.

Like all the world’s most successful brands, seeing and hearing the name conjures strong emotions, strengthens loyalty, helps sell products and supersedes even the individuals in the team.

In the All Blacks’ case, it even enabled them to drop the ‘New Zealand’ from their name without any real fallout.

Of course it’d be foolish to ignore the fact that a great brand has to start with a great product, and there’s no bluffing when it comes to the All Blacks’ exceptional performance on the field. The team’s win ratio in the professional era is more than 80 per cent. That means they’re not justifying themselves to sponsors every time a game is played, but positioning for the long term – clearly a successful strategy given Adidas and AIG have both signed on until 2019. (In contrast this is something short-sighted companies fail to do when they make decisions that bring quick profits but spell long term brand death.)

In fact, so valuable are the two words ‘All Blacks’, that adding them to Sevens, Maori, Under 19s, Under 21s, schools, etcetera means inspiring many through association. Allow me to add yet another disclaimer when I tell you I didn’t realise the Wallabies were officially the Qantas Wallabies. Then again, judging by people’s comments following articles on the topic of major naming rights, most people are equally unimpressed. (Plus I can’t help thinking Qantas’ flailing brand isn’t doing much for the Wallabies’ one.)

I know there was a lot of concern when AIG got their name on the All Black rugby jersey, but in Australian terms that’s as subtle as it gets.

On the other hand, if I wake up and read a chipper little press release announcing the newly renamed Spark All Blacks, I’ll take back all my goodwill.

Great partnerships between sponsors and teams walk a fine line. In my eyes changing the team name crosses that line.