The Press,  June 2011

Not since All Black fullback Allan Hewson donned pantyhose in the early 1980s has there been so much controversy about the attire of our elite rugby players.

This time it is the Highlanders and their now infamous green jersey, a decision that is fundamentally wrong for many reasons, not the least of which is poor marketing strategy.

Dunedin’s flash new stadium could be easily filled with the objectors to the new strip.

Polls in the south are running 90% against, and stalwarts like Anton Oliver are coming out in passionate criticism of the jersey change.

"I have read comments saying that the green jersey debate has been overblown, (but) some things matter and are worth putting your head up over the parapet and making your opinions heard,” he wrote in a letter published on Stuff.co.nz.

Oliver was just one of many prominent former players to express outrage.

Highlanders General Manager Roger Clark explained it this way, “A year ago, the Highlanders was not a strong franchise – the team wasn’t performing and it was hard work for our fans.

This year, there’s a real sense of renewal and renewed energy and our own research tells us that people across our provincial union regions want us to have a franchise identity distinct from their provinces’.”

In other words, we were crap and one of the ways to fix it is to slap a new jersey on the boys.

It’s exactly the same wrongheaded thinking that results in companies using a new logo to try shift their customer’s poor perception of them, or a politician’s attempt to spin bad news so the public won’t realise they are being misled.

Customers put meaning into things like logos. In themselves such symbols are meaningless and empty - they are filled with significance by the actions of the organisation that uses it.

Nike’s ubiquitous swoosh was dreamed up by a graphic design student in 1972, at a cost of $35. Company founder Phil Knight reportedly said at the time "I don't love it, but I think it will grow on me."

That it has become the world’s 25th most valuable brand, worth $US13.7 billion, is because of all the depth of experiences built into it, the millions of products, the famous people who have worn the swoosh, the relentless advertising, the fancy stores and so on.

Nike didn’t change their logo to overcome controversy over using child labour in the 1990s, they changed their practices.

Where a new logo, or in this case a new jersey, may be justified, is if you want to completely distance yourself from the past or launch a product completely different to your core offering.

Unless the Highlanders are planning to become a netball team, this isn’t the case.

There is a huge amount of history, tradition and pride that has built value in the colours of Blue (Otago), Maroon (Southland) and Gold (North Otago) that feature in the existing jersey styles.

People are passionate about the existing jersey because of what it represents. In many ways it is a summary of more than 120 years of rugby in Otago, Southland and North Otago.

It embodies the fact only Auckland, Canterbury and Wellington have produced more All Blacks than Otago; that Southland is a 124 year old province and until recently held the Ranfurly Shield; that North Otago once beat the Wallabies (in 1962) and last season won the premier Heartland rugby trophy, the Meads Cup.

Those and many other experiences are the ones that have invested meaning and value into the jersey. Perhaps the design could better reflect the three provinces, but throwing it out completely rejects that proud heritage.

In the jersey justifying statement, Mr Clark said, “We have chosen colours that we believe represent the physical characteristics of the whole franchise region. The colours will make a clear statement about the geography of our region and will stand out in the Super Rugby international competition.

Standing out will not be achieved by a jersey the colour of a Southland paddock, but playing more of the guts and glory style of rugby shown by the team under Jamie Joseph, at least until the last few rounds.”

What the Highlanders franchise don’t understand is that they don’t actually own the team or the jersey, the fans do.

Management will claim legally the Highlanders brand and therefore the jersey is theirs, but it is worthless without the southern fans. It is the fans that put meaning into the jersey, whatever its colour.

The fact the Highlanders management has been so surprised by the vehemence of the reaction is evidence they don’t understand this. If they’d treated the jersey as the property of the fans, they would have taken a much different approach.

The bottom line is that if the Highlanders were playing outstanding rugby year after year, and enjoying success, no one would be tinkering with the jersey. Can you imagine the Crusaders trying a bit of pink to spice up the franchise?

Listen to the true owners of the jersey, the fans, get rid of the green monster, and focus on building an outstanding footy team.

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