The 2015 AFL Pre-Season Brand Premiership Ladder. Where did your club finish?

The depth of emotional engagement, belief and belonging that sporting brands are able to arouse from their customers would be the envy of most brands.

If you think about it, sporting brands actually trade in hope and expectation. At the beginning of the year it’s the hope of a premiership season, or at least improvement on last year. There are new players that bring with them the hope of being something special, or the more seasoned campaigners that you trust and expect to perform. Once a club has earned your trust – that they will do their best to deliver on the expectation of hope they have created – then you will belong: become a member, go to games or watch them on TV, and probably buy some merchandise.

Yet for all of that brand currency, I don’t think the majority of the AFL clubs understand brand strategy really all that well.

Over the weekend, the AFL released a review of each club’s pre-season membership numbers and membership campaigns, which again highlighted to me how confused most clubs seem to be when it comes to their own brands, and how little long term strategy most of them seem to have.

“It is increasingly difficult for AFL club and marketing types to stay on message and be original. Eighteen clubs, 18 different slogans, year after year after year… you try to walk in their shoes,” quotes the article.

But why?

Probably the most fundamental rule of brand building is the importance of consistency and continuity, yet every year nearly every club hangs their hat on a new and often completely different message. It’s an obsession that doesn’t make sense to me.

The truth is, I think many clubs wrongly believe that their marquee players represent what their brand is, and therefore confuse tactical marketing campaigns with brand building, but this is a flawed strategy.

Because of the AFL equalisation policies like the draft, it’s very difficult for any AFL club to sustain success for long periods of time, so if your brand is measured only by on field performance there will be in trouble when you’re not winning.

You have to stand for something more than a catchy slogan each year, because the brand is all that’s left to believe in when you’re sitting near the bottom of the ladder struggling to win a game.

Hawthorn has a reputation for being ‘the family club’ – although it’s not particularly that clear why – and it was able to fall back on this emotional brand promise in leaner times of success in most of the 1990’s and early 2000’s.

Collingwood, arguably the biggest sporting club in Australia, are really the only club that I can think of to have kept any continuity with their marketing in recent memory. ‘Side By Side’ is what they have promised for about the last 5 years. It’s an emotional hook from their theme song which speaks to the heart of the ‘us against them’ mentality that is unique to the ‘Pies because, let’s face it, you either love them or you hate them don’t you. It’s perfect, and it’s no wonder how much stronger their brand value is than the rest of the competition.

It’s only going to get tougher for footy clubs to carve out their own slice of the entertainment market, especially the traditionally smaller ones. The clubs with clarity of identity – those with the most memorable brands – will certainly prosper.

Memorable brands are built from foundations of clarity, continuity and long-term strategy; not ‘catchy’ new slogans year upon year.

So without further ado here’s my innaugural AFL Marketing Ladder for 2015. What do you think of your club’s performance?

Premiers: Carlton – We are the Navy Blues. One club. One tribe. One love.
Speaking to the tribe is fantastic, we all want to be part of a tribe. It’s emotional, it’s inclusive, and coming off the back of a couple of the worst campaigns in recent memory makes it all the more appealing. Remember ‘They Know We’re Coming (2009)’ and ‘Can You Smell What The Blues Are Cooking? (2010) – thought so, but for all the wrong reasons.

Runner Up: Essendon – Don The Sash: Back In.
For a North Melbourne supporter it’s hard for me to admit this publicly, but #DonTheSash is probably the best of the club marketing campaign slogans I can think of in recent memory. It has a unique call to action that is linked perfectly with one of the clubs most important touch points – their guernsey. Like Collingwood, this is another example of playing with something unnecessarily. Back In? What does that even mean? Why mess with a good thing?

3rd Place: Collingwood – Side by side we stick together: It’s more than a line in our song.
Previously just “Side by Side”, which was simple and aligned perfectly in my opinion. Seems like the addition at the end is just change for the sake of it. There has long been an ‘us against them’ mentality at Collingwood, so why not continue to build on this? “It’s more than a line in our song” actually dilutes their previously confident and clear promise.

4th Place: Port Adelaide – Bring the Noise.
Port have had a huge brand resurgence over the last couple of years. From a club totally confused about its identity and barely managing to pull a crowd to their games, to a united team with a never-say-die reputation and supporter base who’s passion is the envy of the competition. While ‘Bring the Noise’ is not a promise as such, it to the heart of what’s different and unique about the Port Adelaide fan experience at the Adelaide Oval. Noisy, passionate and formidable.

5th Place: Hawthorn – Made from Brown and Gold.
This campaign could go either way. It’s not much of a promise, and let’s face it, they are pretty awful colours. But… they have made some effort to bring the concept to life through execution and a club’s colours are the most unique and sacred thing they can ‘own’. Right now the brown and gold are the most feared team in the competition, so ‘Made from Brown and Gold’ kinda makes sense

6th Place: Greater Western Sydney – #standtall.
GWS don’t have the rich history, or the success that almost all of the other AFL clubs have as part of their brand stories, so they must talk to what is unique about them – they are underdogs, they are the new kids on the block, they are in the middle of hostile territory (in a sporting code sense at least) and #standtall is a nice way to pull this together in a way that says they are the Giants.

7th Place Fremantle – #foreverfreo
Yes it’s a call for unity, yes it’s an easy to use hashtag (which I think is important in this day and age) but it’s not much of a promise or really call to action/arms. It’s not bad, it’s just not that good either.

8th Place: Western Bulldogs – #gatherthepack
Similar to Carlton, the Bulldogs are making a call out to their tribe, but in their own brand voice. It’s a call to action to be a part of something unique to the doggies #woof.

9th Place (again!): Richmond – Strong and Bold.
It has promise, and it’s aligned with their theme song, however once you change it from “We’re strong and we’re bold” (like in the song) i don’t think it has the same level of impact, it seems more passive. That’s a strange decision for mine. Richmond have promised lots but have delivered to their supporters for a very long time. If I were working with Richmond, I would be looking back into their DNA, back when they were feared and revered in the 1970’s and early 1980’s for what it was that made the Richmond brand really great and start from there.

10th Place: West Coast Eagles – The West is Ours.
While not particularly inspiring, West Coast are at least making a promise to their primary ‘customer’ in Western Australians, and making an effort to align with their history as the first Western Australian AFL team. This positions themselves as ‘the original’ (just like Coca Cola) against Fremantle (who you might call the ‘Pepsi’ of the west).

11th Place: Melbourne – My heart beats true.
Melbourne has taken part of their theme song, as have Collingwood, for their marketing slogan. It’s emotional, it’s unique to Melbourne, and it’s a good start, but it’s really not much of a call to action either.

12th Place: Brisbane – Believe, Belong.
I blogged later last year about Belief, Belonging and Behavioural change, and football clubs trade in belief more than any other brands. You can’t command people to believe and belong though, it doesn’t work like that.

13th Place: Gold Coast Suns – Fire Up!
Not really sure about this. Yes there is a connection between fire and sun but it’s not that clever. It is at least a call to action, and something they can run with on game day, but it feels like a very short lived idea.

14th Place: North Melbourne – #getREAL
I have been a North Melbourne member for more than 35 years and I don’t even know what this means. North’s much talked about (but vaguely defined) ‘Shinboner Spirit’ was turned into #NorthSpirit a few years back which was something every North supporter could get behind. #getREAL has no promise, no call to action, and almost sounds condescending. A huge step backwards from a brand and marketing perspective.

15th Place: Geelong – We need you, be a member at home or far away.
This actually sounds like a marketing slogan brief rather than a marketing slogan. Huh?

16th Place: St Kilda – TBC
Apparently St Kilda will be launching their membership campaign in March? Talk about leaving things too late! Having said that, their membership is 4,000 up on this time last year so it doesn’t seem to have hurt their membership at all – and it’s still better than Adelaide and Sydney’s efforts.

17th Place: Adelaide – Unleash 2015.
Too rational, too basic, no promise. I hope they put in more effort on the field than they do with their marketing. With the resurgence of Port Adelaide, The Crows are having a hard time playing second fiddle as a brand right now.

Wooden Spoon: Sydney Swans – Feel it in ’15.
Do Sydney and Adelaide have the same marketing departments? For a team that made the grand final last year with so much promise this is very poor.


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