Rugby: Brand's grand plan

By Gregor Paul

Winning the World Cup will have another, lucrative benefit - pushing the All Blacks up the premier league of global sports brands.

Research by the New Zealand Rugby Union shows the All Blacks are easily the world's most recognised rugby team and that awareness is climbing in the UK and other fringe rugby markets and going off the scale in France.

With the French hosting this year's World Cup, the NZRU is aware it has a massive opportunity to grow brand awareness and convert that into revenue.

While New Zealanders continue to invest thousands of dollars supporting the All Blacks, off-shore markets are key to the growth of the brand.

The NZRU wants to create one of the world's leading sports brands and to do that, it needs to exploit commercial opportunities in Europe, China, Japan and the US.

Sales of the famous black jersey are already at unprecedented levels in 2007. European sales of replica jerseys and other official All Black merchandise are booming five months out from the World Cup and some headway is being made in non-traditional rugby countries.

To fully exploit those relatively untapped markets, the NZRU needs the All Blacks to be successful in France and win the World Cup for the first time since 1987.

"We take the view there are three pillars the All Black brand is marketed on," says NZRU commercial manager Fraser Holland. "Team performance, history and heritage, and New Zealand and its culture. There is no doubt that performance is the most important pillar.

"We are aware the World Cup is a massive opportunity and we've been working hard on the back of the end of season tour last year where we did a number of small but significant things.

"Outside of the core markets, in places like Portugal, Spain and Italy, it is realistic to believe we can make large steps after the World Cup. These countries have access to rugby and are close to the main rugby regions and, while it might not be the main sport, you only need a small percentage in a country like Italy to add real value."

The small but significant things to which Holland is referring are the adidas-arranged appearance of the All Blacks at the Parc de Princes in Paris last year to cheer on the French football team. The All Blacks were there en masse, all clad in French jerseys, having had lunch with the football boys the previous day.

An estimated French audience of 10 million saw the All Blacks in Paris, which is partly why France, by some way, is the key European market for the NZRU to exploit.

"Prior to the 2003 World Cup, we did some research," said Holland. "We benchmarked the All Blacks against the other two [big] Southern Hemisphere teams, South Africa and the Wallabies, as well as a number of other sporting teams across the spectrum. That included Manchester United, some of the American teams, Formula One and other major European football teams.

"What we found was that in the UK, Ireland and France, we had at least three times the awareness of the Wallabies and Springboks.

"When we extended the measure to determine how much support the All Blacks had, we held up well in Ireland and Wales and had really strong support in France.

"Our most recent research benchmarked us against other adidas-supported teams in a number of different markets such as Spain, China, Japan and the US. That included teams such as Chelsea, Liverpool and the British Lions. What the research showed is that awareness varied depending on territory. For us, the awareness was lowest in places such as Germany, China and the US and highest in European markets. The movement we have seen in the French market has been tremendous.

"Rugby has grown as a sport over the last decade but the All Blacks have grown faster. It is not a brand that is limited to rugby fans and we want to be a world leading rugby brand and also a world leading sports brand."

To achieve that aim, the NZRU has to first convert the awareness into affinity where people don't just recognise the All Black brand and its values, they support it and invest in it.

They are also trying to build a portfolio of global sponsors separate to those corporations who back the team in New Zealand.

Italian firm Ivesco, which makes commercial vehicles, believes the All Blacks are such a potent brand in Europe, it has recently signed a major sponsorship deal, even though the company is not interested in building a profile or sales in New Zealand.

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