The Press, September 2007

I always imagine Colin Meads raising one of those bushy eyebrows everytime someone mentions the All Blacks “brand”. In his day a brand was something applied to the rear of the cow who provided the steak they ate for breakfast before a test.

These days the All Black brand is something huge and about to be sorely tested over the coming weeks.

If Richie McCaw raises the William Webb Ellis trophy on October 21 in Paris, the All Black brand will be immeasurably strengthened. If not, it will suffer a serious blow.

First, what is this ‘brand’ thing? It is the picture you hold in your head about a ‘thing’ – a product, a company, a person, a service etc. It is formed from a complicated mix of interactions you have with that ‘thing’. Brands are important for businesses because they help people choose in increasingly competitive markets – the more favourable that picture in customers heads the more likely they are to choose your offering.

Building and strengthening a brand is a simple equation. If you deliver your customers an experience that exceeds their expectations you improve the strength of your brand. If you don’t meet their expectations your brand is weakened.

It may be simple but that doesn’t mean it is easy.

Expectations about a brand are created in many ways. Your advertising, publicity, website, referrals from other customers, who your CEO is, past experiences with your company, visual identity (logo, colours, signage) and so on and so forth. From all of these sources a customer will form an expectation of what it will be like to engage with your organisation.

For the All Blacks this expectation is huge. They have an immensely proud past record but haven’t won the cup for 20 years, they have been in great form over the last two years, the haka creates immense mystique around them, adidas have promoted them throughout the world, the media has been talking world cup for months. Us Kiwis are ready to explode in anticipation.

The other part of the brand equation is experience - given all of those expectations what is the actual experience like? Does it work as expected, is it value for money, is the back-up good, does it make the customer feel better etc.

If a customer’s experience with your brand exceeds their expectation of it, your brand is strengthened. If the reverse happens, your brand becomes less effective.

This is more clear cut in sport than a typical business situation. The customer’s experience is focussed on a simple win or loss. The performance on the field is the ultimate experience they have.

For the All Blacks the expectation is so high and so intense only a win is likely to meet it and therefore strengthen the famous brand. Contrast this with the Scottish rugby brand. If they put up a good fight against the All Blacks next Monday their brand will be strengthened, because the expectations aren’t that high.

A former Rugby Union marketing manager explains it this way on Brandchannel.com, “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.”

The Warriors are another sports brand who have experienced this. They invested heavily to build huge expectations when they were initially launched in the NRL but couldn’t deliver an experience that matched. Their brand suffered – crowds dropped and sponsorship probably got harder to find.

They have now learnt to be more temperate in their expectation setting and focus on delivering. That has been great for the Warriors brand this year.

What does this mean for a regular company? It means you have to be sure that the expectations you are setting – the promises you are making in advertising, trade shows, direct marketing, on your website – are consistent with the experience the customer has with your product.

You also have to ensure everyone in your organisation is clear about the experience they have to deliver – from the way they answer the phone, deliver the product, talk to customers, manage complaints, etc. Everyone needs to know the role that they have to play.

Strong brands are those that balance expectation and experience well. Although Graham Henry has strived to keep it under control, expectations around the All Blacks in this world cup are huge. The strength of the All Blacks brand is in his hands – and this is significant not just for the rugby union.

As NZRU Deputy-CEO Steve Tew said to Unlimited Magazine: “We’re not a Coca-Cola or a Weet-Bix. We are something quite different. When you’re talking about the All Black brand, you’re talking about something that is part of the spirit and the essence of New Zealand. It’s quite a responsibility.”

No pressure boys! Kia kaha.

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