The not so mighty ‘All Blacks’

There were a fair few eyebrows raised back in 2012, when the NZRFU decided to extend the All Blacks brand beyond the traditional 15-man rugby union team, to include the Sevens, Maori and under-21 teams.

Questions were asked at the time as to the logic behind the decision, but to a certain extent there was a feeling of “only time will tell”. And in fact, until very recently, many of us had probably forgotten about it.

The brand extension was a brave call, and one clearly driven by commercial considerations – but following the performance of our Sevens team last week (and the embarrassment of losing to both Japan and Fiji), it’s arguably a move that the NZRFU might be wondering if they can quietly unwind.

This would be a lot harder than granting them the title in the first place – and Steve Tew has already come out and boldly said they will continue with the shared-brand approach.

So that’s that then.

Whereas others might focus on the sporting issues around this decision, and the impact on the All Blacks brand and reputation, let’s look at this situation from a marketing communications perspective.

Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of brand architecture knows, that by tweaking elements of your brand, or aligning it with a wider range of related, but “non-core” products, you run the risk of undermining what it stands for.

Cadbury and Ribena are two local brands that have, in recent times, felt the impact of such miscalculations – Cadbury during the widely-publicised palm oil debacle, when it altered a much loved recipe and product; and Ribena, by not living up to the claims on its packaging.

They both took a justified hammering as a result, coupled with considerable commercial fallout.

Even brand behemoth Coca Cola isn’t immune to failure when it comes to brand changes and extensions – starting all those years ago with ‘New Coke’, and more recently with Coke Life, which, it’s fair to say, has been far from a stellar success here in New Zealand.

It’s too complicated having to constantly explain these other teams are “not really the All Blacks”.

What makes the NZRFU’s decision even more puzzling, is that the other teams already enjoyed a relatively close brand association with the All Blacks. They wore black shirts, played rugby, and were connected to the ‘New Zealand’ identity.

So, was making these other teams “All Blacks” really necessary?

In my view, they would have been well advised to choose another route. A more considered approach would have been to develop strong, separate brand identities for each of these teams.

This is particularly true of the Maori and Sevens teams, each of which lends itself to a distinct, proud brand of its own – though still within the iconic black shirt, New Zealand territory. In essence, the All Blacks brand is likely to become more of a straightjacket for these teams, rather than a boon.

What damage will further patchy “All Blacks” performances deliver?

There’s no doubt the success of the All Blacks as a global sports brand is an incredible achievement, and one that our nation should be justifiably proud of. Sports teams the world over look to them as an example of teamwork, mental fortitude, organisation, and of course, unrivalled success.

However, do the NZRFU really think that they can operate four teams with the same level of extreme focus, determination and success as they can one? There’s little doubt, after last week, that the reverence of the All Black brand (both locally and internationally) has taken a big knock. And it won’t be the last time, either.

What damage will further patchy “All Blacks” performances deliver?

Surely it’s too complicated having to constantly explain these other teams are “not really the All Blacks”.

As Marketing 101 tells us: if it’s not easy, it doesn’t really work – and from where I sit this decision sure isn’t working.

Article was published in the New Zealand Herald.

Ben Goodale, Managing Director