He's big, powerful and worth millions as a marketing tool. TIM WATKIN looks at the business that is Jonah Lomu.



Close your eyes and think of Jonah Lomu. (Hell, a few Springboks probably did last night.) Most likely, you'll conjure up thoughts of Lomu breaking tackles and scoring tries, of size, power and domination.



That impression is what has made the Tongan boy from South Auckland a multi-millionaire. While his rugby skills earn him a handsome living, the worldwide fame and millions of dollars from sponsorship have come because his combination of strength and speed can leave people awestruck. In an under-whelmed and over-hyped market, those who stand out, who can genuinely make us gasp, are worth their weight in contracts.



And if there's one thing 26-year-old Jonah Tali Lomu does, it's stand out. At 1.96m and 118 kgs, with a 116cm chest, he's a big man. He's even bigger business.

Advertisement


In Britain right now he's nine storeys high. The week before last, one year before the Commonwealth Games begin, Scary Spice unveiled a nine-storey photo of Lomu in downtown Manchester. He's been selected alongside swimmer Ian Thorpe and heptathlete Denise Williams as one of the faces of the 2002 Commonwealth Games. This is all part of the business of being Jonah Lomu.



"As well as Jonah Lomu the person and rugby player, we've made Jonah Lomu the industry," says the giant winger's mentor and manager, Phil Kingsley Jones. "We sell Jonah Lomu the human being as an image, as a market brand. My dream is that everybody's got a Jonah Lomu calendar, pen, aftershave - that the name Jonah Lomu is out there."



Right from the beginning, in the pre-professional days of Lomu's career, the Welsh-born former-comedian and after-dinner speaker says he saw Lomu's marketing potential.



"When he got dropped from the All Blacks in 1994 he lost the car he was going to have within a fortnight. So straight away I looked for a car for him and we did an advert with Mazda - the starting blocks and car ad [in which Jonah races the car]. And Powerade was launching and I thought it's a good product, healthy, so bang, he did that one. And we did the PlayStation rugby game. Then McDonald's came on board and we did the McFeast advert."



It was all so easy. But after teenage Lomu's initial impact on the international scene, as doubts about his ability appeared and Kingsley Jones sought more money, the marketing men wavered.



Kingsley Jones zealously insisted Lomu was going to be the biggest thing in rugby, but Mazda and Powerade pulled out. That was before Lomu ran over the top of Mike Catt in the 1995 World Cup semifinal in Capetown and his local fame became a global avalanche.



Kingsley Jones says he ran into the man from Powerade the other day.



"He laughed and said, 'What a fool I was turning Jonah Lomu down for that amount of money'."



Ah yes, money. Right now Lomu markets goods for adidas, Enza, Fusion car stereos, Sony PlayStation, BMG record company and, of course, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, which pays him $300,000 a year to play and perform. No one will talk about the dollars he makes from his other marketing deals. The best you can do is estimate.



Richard Gee, author of Practical Marketing in New Zealand, says the figure quoted in the marketing industry is that Lomu receives about $3.5 million a year in total. Top agents say anyone wanting to put Lomu's name on an international one-year contract should expect to pay more than a million dollars.



"If it's not well, well into six figures [a year] he wouldn't be being looked after properly," one agent said of Lomu's adidas sponsorship deal.



Since 1999, adidas has had a "head to toe" deal with Lomu requiring him to wear all adidas gear whenever he's on a rugby field - from training to test - until after the next World Cup in 2003. (The exception is when he plays for the Canterbury-wearing Wellington Lions in the NPC).



The company's All Black brand manager Andrew Gaze will say only that the rumoured $10 million his company is supposed to pay Lomu is "way out".



Tim Allen, until last week the business development manager for Enza, is similarly coy. All he will say is that Lomu is value for money and "not as much as you would think".



The man who knows all the numbers, the man at the front door of the Lomu shop, is 53-year-old Kingsley Jones.



He says rich-list estimates that Lomu is worth $6 million are inaccurate, but won't elaborate.



"I never discuss what Jonah's making. But if I can run a company off 20 per cent of what he's making then it gives you an indication."



What Kingsley Jones really loves talking about is Lomu - which is fortunate, because he gets around 20 calls a day regarding the big winger.



"And that would be very, very conservative. [The calls are] from adidas to the Commonwealth Games to people wanting him to come to their school."



Kingsley Jones became Lomu's mentor when the 14-year-old Wesley College pupil joined a Counties development squad. Before long he was also acting as Lomu's manager, although he says that was never his ambition. Lomu simply refused the offers from other managers who wanted him.



"He didn't want that. It was me and him, sink or swim, do it together."



So now Lomu does the business on the field and Kingsley Jones has control of business off it. And that control is complete. When I asked to speak with Lomu about the industry surrounding him and how he handles it, Kingsley Jones said Lomu did not talk business. He's never been in a boardroom and doesn't talk about such things publicly. Although Lomu has a right of veto over any deal, he otherwise "doesn't interfere". The trust between the pair is total, even though Kingsley Jones admits to have learned his job by gut instinct and trial and error.



"It's a bit like the lion and lioness. The lioness goes hunting and brings it back to the lion."



All Jonah's deals are handled by Number 11 Management, a company owned by Kingsley Jones and his wife Susan. The number 11 means a lot to Kingsley Jones and Lomu, who guard the brand with equal passion. Lomu's name and brand logo have been trademarked.



"Jonah's brand is the number 11 with the ones going the opposite ways and his name written through it," says Kingsley Jones. "He's got it tattooed on his chest. So it's a brand that we strongly believe in."



Number 11 Management, 1996, has 100 shares. Kingsley Jones and his wife own one each and 98 are held by the Symphony Trust. The trust's address is the same as the Jones' home address in Manukau.



The Joneses and Lomus keep the business in the family. Kingsley Jones says "there's myself, Jonah's mum and dad and my daughter working for Jonah Lomu on a full-time basis".



Mrs Lomu distributes Lomu merchandise. Mr Lomu is described as "a general handyman".



Lomu himself is the sole shareholder of two companies, registered at the same Newmarket address as Number 11; Stylez Ltd, of which he and his accountant Ian Duff are co-directors, manages his negotiations and "owns the persona of Jonah"; the other, JL11 Ltd, with Duff sole director, is merely a shelf company and doesn't conduct business at present.



With the Number 11 staff and Duff, the final member in "team Lomu" is solicitor Chris Darlow. But another main player in Lomu's business world is adidas' Tonia Cawood whose sole job is to care for the winger, travelling with him and developing strategies for adidas to use him on the world stage.



Number 11's control extends to Lomu's contract with the NZRFU, allowing him more promotional freedom than any other player in New Zealand. Whereas other All Blacks are contracted to cooperate with promotions by NZRFU and its sponsors, Kingsley Jones says "the NZRFU has to get permission from Number 11 to use Jonah. That's written into his contract."



It's the same with licensed NZRFU products. Tina Mathieson, whose company Trademark Management oversees NZRFU logos on products from coffee mugs to children's clothes, says, "Lomu as an individual sits outside that agreement. That's handled by Phil."



If Trademark wants to use Lomu on NZRFU products, "there is an approval process that we go through". No other player gets such special treatment.



Kingsley Jones prefers that Lomu receives up-front payments, with royalties to follow - a percentage cut doesn't swing it. "No, you pay for the use of the name Jonah Lomu."



Number 11 is fiercely protective of Lomu's image, having threatened legal action against several publishers who used his photo without permission.



"We've got to be careful because it happens all the time."



Ask Lomu's sponsors and leading marketers what his image is and its potency is clear. Answers range from his power and impact, to the story of his success from humble beginnings and his distinctive looks. Quite simply, he stands out.



Enza wanted him because it emphasises New Zealand origin, excellence and health in its export apple sales and "Jonah embodies those things".



Graham Seatter, sponsorship manager for Lion Breweries, points out that Jonah is an even bigger brand overseas. "He's probably the face of world rugby."



And his face is unique. "You can never see a picture of Jonah and say, 'Doesn't he look a bit like ... ?'," says Kingsley Jones. "He's got that X-factor." He adds that brand Lomu "stands for good, clean, upstanding, one of the guys, follow me".



To maitain that clean image, Number 11 has turned down some big offers, including the TAB and Steinlager in Britain.



"Cigarettes and alcohol are out because he doesn't believe in that. Gambling is out because he doesn't believe in that. He's religious, so we won't do condoms and things like that."



Lomu was offered such "huge money" to promote Santori whisky in Japan. Kingsley Jones jokes that Lomu said he could learn to drink whisky for that amount of money.



But the proposal came just after he'd recovered from his kidney illness, so it would have looked ridiculous. It would also have undermined the long-term clean-cut image.



"We've never taken the quick buck," says Kingsley Jones. "His image to me is far more important than money because he'll always get money if his image is good. We don't need to grab it all tonight and lock it in a chest."



Kingsley Jones can afford to say that now, but when Lomu was first diagnosed with nephrotic syndrome, he thought they would have to live off the 1995 World Cup performances.



Just in case, Lomu spent his year off being trained to present himself on stage, speak to journalists and handle public recognition. He learned well. His sponsors can't speak highly enough of the man or his ways with the public; especially children.



Yet one night of drunken behaviour or one steamy scandal could kill the very reason companies want to be associated with him. His failed marriage had to be handled quietly. That's the risk you take when the person is the brand.



Dr John Guthrie, who lectures in sports marketing at Otago University, says companies such as adidas need consistency of image.



"They want to make sure that whichever athletes they link up with project the same image that want to project as a company ... The personal brand is more vulnerable. The strength of that brand is the emotional attachment people can have to it."



The emotional attachment Lomu provokes means marketers have used him as an ambassador rather than a straight endorser of products. All Enza has asked of Lomu is five in-store appearances at Sainsbury's and Safeway supermarkets in London and a day training with 65 competition-winning children. It was "a relationship boosting exercise with two key accounts", says Allen.



McDonald's, a major sponsor for four years from 1996, used the ambassadorial approach after Lomu's initial McFeast advertisements. "It was long-term gain we were looking for," Sutcliffe adds.



Kingsley Jones says McDonald's didn't renew its contract last year because of what marketers call clutter. "We haven't got enough Jonah to spread around. McDonald's got disillusioned with this. So did Reebok who were with us at one time. They couldn't get enough of him. So we've tailored it now so that we can fulfil all our sponsorship needs."



One product Lomu no longer promotes is his Number 11 aftershave - his biggest flop. It was pulled less than six months after launch because of poor sales.



Cosmetic importers say distribution was flawed and $88 too high a price for most Lomu fans. "You've got to position it right and they didn't," says one. "It was hardly Aramis was it?"



As Kingsley Jones says, they found out too late they couldn't compete with the vast advertising budgets of international cosmetic firms. The lesson was that creating their own products was not the best way ahead.



Instead, Lomu's success has come in association with other companies' brands, especially adidas, which has used him most aggressively.



Says adidas' Andrew Gaze: "The thing is he's six-foot-whatever, 118 kg and can run 100m in 11 flat. There are not many athletes in the world who have got that kind of dynamic.



"And the fantastic guy is dealing with kids - adidas' target market is 12-20, so he's just the perfect vehicle to use to communicate to kids."



Everyone acknowledges that the only thing between Lomu and the sort of fame enjoyed - or endured - by the likes of Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan is rugby's small constituency. He's in a smalltown sport in a small country Down Under. If Lomu wasn't so committed to the All Blacks he could earn millions more playing rugby in Europe or accepting one of the American football offers he's received.



For all that, says Gaze, Lomu has pulling power even in non-rugby countries. So for two years he's been part of adidas' "be better" global campaign - last year alongside Anna Kournikova, Ato Boldon and David Beckham and this year, with Martina Hingis, Sergio Garcia and Boldon.



"The research that's come out of that is that Jonah has tracked the best both in terms of the perception of the ad and the product [a running shoe] that he was aligned to."



Back home Lomu doesn't receive quite the same adulation. Trademark Management's Tina Mathieson admits that in New Zealand Lomu is carefully promoted as one of the All Blacks. Offshore, he can be a solo superstar.



"He's an important element for the game globally," she says. "In saying that he's one of the team, too. No player is bigger than the jersey or brand of All Blacks."



Really? It may be heresy to suggest as much in this country - certainly Kingsley Jones is too politic to say so - but here goes: overseas Jonah Lomu is bigger than the All Blacks.



Gaze: "Yeah, that's a fact of life, unfortunately. He's the one who's got the profile."



Rugby journalist Phil Gifford agrees: "I don't think anyone in the rugby union will admit it, but I agree entirely.



"I wonder, actually, if they would have got anywhere near as good a contract with adidas if they hadn't have had Jonah in the fold. I mean, he's so huge in Europe, it's just staggering. In England he's a semi-legendary figure."



Gifford says some local fans knock Jonah because he's gained such celebrity. But he believes Lomu is actually incredibly well-grounded considering his business and playing pressures.



"People around him sometimes give him special treatment. Every player I've spoken to assures me that he doesn't ask for it, but people just act differently around him."



Gifford quotes from a yet-to-be released book he's writing with that epitome of humility, Todd Blackadder. On the '97 All Black tour to Britain, says Blackadder, Lomu was "as good as gold. Jonah is only ever treated differently by the coaches. He doesn't ever ask for special treatment."



Gifford says it's only practical that the coaches treat him differently. They know he can win them games. "They know he's not just another player. That's like saying Muhammad Ali is just another boxer."



No wonder potential sponsors are queuing up. Kingsley Jones says he has five or six big opportunities on offer, and compares the situation to taking a carload of mates to a rugby game.



"The car's full at the moment, but if one wants to jump out there is always one ready to jump in. That's the way I want to keep it.



"Playing rugby's holding us back," he says, matter-of-factly.



"The business will expand once he's finished playing. As long as he walks away what he is: Jonah Lomu, icon rugby player."



Not everyone's so sure.



"I wouldn't be that positive," says Guthrie, summing up what many in the business believe. "I think a lot of his success is built on the All Blacks. Once his platform has gone it will be very hard for him to retain that brand strength."



Andrew Gaze doesn't agree. Once Lomu retires, he says "they'll remember the Jonah try against England in the '95 World Cup or the one he scored to win us the World Cup in Sevens. They'll remember and the legend will grow. I see that he has huge earning ability post his playing career."



Just how well he succeeds in the days after will depend on what image comes to mind when you close your eyes some years hence and think of Jonah Lomu, ex-All Black. Then, and only then, will we know just how big Jonah Lomu really is.