Three years ago, I was engaged by the RFU to look at their brand identity and it was then that my preconceptions of rugby as a studious game for privileged southerners challenged (I’m originally from the North West of England and a lifelong fan of Everton). But rather than becoming an evangelical convert, my apathy was replaced with frustration.
Why? Well, It’s clear all the national unions and their governing body, World Rugby, are looking to grow the game geographically and reach all areas of society, but quite frankly, from a branding and communications point of view they really are missing the point.
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The best brands in the world have one thing in common - they clearly communicate a point of difference. These are companies with the confidence to look at their own capabilities, what potential customers want and what their competitors are doing and then build a proposition which is unique, compelling and true. Put simply they don’t try to stand in - they stand out.
Why do World Rugby not have this single-minded vision?
Look at the London Olympics in 2012. How could the city compete with the ostentatious show of wealth and strength that was the Beijing Games which preceded it? The answer is they didn’t. Choosing instead to concentrate on something ownable to the city: youth, energy and creativity. It was a ceremony and games which was absolutely single-minded and used every touch-point to communicate this simply and effectively.
Rugby has a massive opportunity to stand out too. The world of other sports are not the shining beacons of success they’d like us to believe. Football in particular has issues with fans feeling disenfranchised from the clubs they’ve supported for years. And Fifa, the governing body set up to unify the game and uphold its ethics, seem to be stumbling from scandal to scandal. Then there’s cycling and athletics, both still trying to rid their sports of drugs cheats. Or Formula 1 which has essentially become a procession of expensive engineering. Even golf is considered expensive and lacking the facilities to be wholly inclusive.
And this is Rugby’s biggest and most compelling truth. The sport is actually good for you. For everyone. It’s built of stronger, more wholesome stuff.
Regardless of level it’s a spectator sport that’s safe to watch, finding the perfect balance of hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck passion and self-control and camaraderie. Children are taught from the outset the values of respect, discipline and sportsmanship. The women’s game, built on a mantra of inclusivity and teamwork, is thriving because it doesn’t just welcome all shapes and sizes it actively encourages them. And although incidents of simulation and dissent are on the rise in the elite game, it’s still a far cry from the histrionics of the major football leagues.
If all this great stuff was communicated with a singularity, clarity and consistency I fail to see how this wouldn’t be compelling to the ‘non-believers’ or those engaging with the sport for the first time. After all these are values and experiences that are held dearly in practically all the world’s cultures and societies.
And there lies the rub. Rugby has the capabilities in abundance, they have something their potential customers would want and it’s something their competitors can’t claim. It’s branding gold. But as the curtain rose on the opening ceremony we were greeted by an epic and stirring film of public schoolboys from a bygone era followed swiftly by man-mountain gladiators flinging slabs of granite across the field, all my preconceptions came flooding back, just wrapped up in the kind of hyperbole usually reserved for a Champions’ League final, a clear case of trying desperately to stand in. They may have hired the artistic director of the 2012 Olympic ceremony but it just goes to prove, talent is nothing without a great idea.
And that’s the real shame. As the South Africa v Japan game proved, they have one staring them in the face.