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Brand management lessons from South African cricket

by Janice Spark

Cricket South AfricaAs Makhaya Ntini failed to fend Shane Warne off on a gloomy Durban evening, most South African cricket fans would have been desperately trying to transport themselves back a few weeks, to the Wanderers, to the one day record and the dream that finally beating the Australians at test cricket was about to become a reality.

Smart business people will, however, have been taking notes throughout the Protea’s extended home and away battle with the Aussies – and will have learned important lessons from South African cricket’s ultimately brave failure to re-vitalise the power of the Proteas brand.

Lesson #1 – Dealing with the past

South African cricket was the first white orientated sporting code to face up to the reality of apartheid. After the infamous rebel tours of the eighties finally dissolved into farce, South African cricket made moves to liberate itself from the past, well before Mandela was released. The result of this early action was that, unlike rugby, cricket recently announced a self declared end to the quota system at national level – this move received a political rubber stamp, thanks to a sound track record and good equity numbers across the sport as a whole.

The parallels with brand management in 21st century South African business are obvious. The far sighted players are already enjoying the benefits of early transformation, while the rest are trying to catch up.

Unfortunately for the Protea’s, their brand has been unable to capitalise on a very promising start…

Lesson #2 – The leadership imperative

Hansie Cronje’s shadow looms large over the Proteas brand, and continues to define the sport’s troublesome leadership challenge. Any truly successful brand requires strong and committed leadership (backed by a stable and well recognised succession plan) across the full scope of the organisation. Unfortunately, South African cricket has been unable to achieve this since re-admission to the international game.

Appointing Graeme Smith as a quasi ‘captain for life’ was a brave move – but when you’re trying to recover from a nuclear-level identity crisis bravery is required; Like him or not, everyone recognises Smith for who and what he is, which provides very necessary stability for the Protea’s brand. Conversely, however, South African cricket’s issues with ‘coach-churn’ have undone this good intent. Vacillations at board level, resulting in the appointment of a string of coaches, have hurt the Protea’s brand on and off the field. Anyone who watches South African cricket on a regular basis will surely concur that the outfit remains a young team seemingly still seeking to discover its character, its personality and its voice. This is the second time the team has had to go through this painful leadership growth phase in a little over a decade. And it shows.

There are signs that South African cricket has realised how its lack of leadership intent, communication and stability is hurting the brand’s overall performance. The appointment of Vince van Der Bijl as General Manager of Professional Cricket, and a stated intent to stick with ‘man-manager’ Micky Arthur as coach are positive signs that actual leadership stability could be on the horizon.

Lesson #3 – Aligning intent, values and reality

The Protea’s sailed forth into their tour to Australia waving the flag of ‘brave cricket’. Having had recent success against minor nations, this ‘new’ approach, without explicitly saying so, was clearly an attempt to engender a healthy sense of self and to push towards an aggressive style of play that delivers results. However, the ‘brave cricket’ approach also looked and felt eerily like a copy of the attitude that has served Australia so well over the last few decades.

What the Protea’s failed to do, critically, was to ensure that this visionary intent matched the reality on the ground – that the philosophy with which the unit went to work on its goals was actually sound, relevant to the organisation’s history and current structure and, critically, able to deliver strategic value over the long term.

Australian society is littered with sporting academies and is remarkably unfettered by social complications. In Australia, the most dangerous thing around – save for the odd rabid Kangaroo – is a Brett Lee fast delivery. Cricket in Australia has been a massive success story over a long period of time and the sport has not suffered through anything like the organisational ups and downs South African cricket has gone through over the last three decades. The Aussies have swept all before them with their coy – yet savvy – use of the media and their brutal on-field presence – all underpinned by a stable society able to focus a significant majority of its energy on sport and leisure activities.

Conversely, the Protea’s come from a deeply complex political and social context – a context where sport is as rooted in conflict and confusion as other aspects of South African life. And if the Protea’s brains trust needed harder proof of the fact that we are not Australia, all they need have done was look at the test cricket world rankings, where South Africa lurked (at the start of the Australia tour) at number 6. More empirical evidence was also to be gained by simply looking at the personalities of the two sides. The South Africans are, by nature, nervous – although seeking to grow their aggressive side. The Australians, on the other hand, have the manipulative confidence of a team that is good enough to almost always get its own way, on and off the field.

The Protea’s attempt to beat Australia by becoming like Australia was thus strategically more than a little naïve. In branding terms, it was imperative that the Protea’s developed their own, relevant, positioning and values, and did not seek to simply mimic the competition.

Lesson #4 – The dangers of media manipulation

Behind South Africa’s brave cricket flag was a clear strategy, part of which included fronting up to the Aussies in their own media pond and taking a few power jabs at perceived weak spots. Very bravely, South Africa tried out the Australian tactic of ‘divide and conquer’ via media manipulation.

Sadly, the Proteas had mis-calculated their ability to deliver on the field – exposing them, and in particular Graham Smith, to a range of punishing media body blows over a six month period.

By now, the lesson will have sunk in for Graham Smith and Micky Arthur. Attempting to manipulate the media is a high risk strategy – especially when you are unsure of your ability to deliver operationally on the strategy. Shane Warne can mouth off highly effectively in the media because he has been the best bowler in the world for the last decade. He knows that, no matter what he says in the press, he can back it up on the field. The Protea’s operate within a very different context.

So, with the clarity of hindsight, it is obvious that the Protea’s would have done far better to weather the Australian media storm than to expose their brand to a terrible chasm between hype and reality. It will be a long while before the global cricket media takes the Proteas, or Graham Smith, seriously again.

Lesson #5 – Focus on core strengths

Thankfully, there’s always the Wanderers, and a world record. The speed with which South African cricket released the DVD of that game, coupled with the commercial momentum provided by publications such as the Sunday Times and the Independent (with their medallions, mementos and other ‘collectables’) show that the local administrators know a good thing when they see it, and that the Proteas brand retains the power to deliver serious clout, when it’s on top of – and not underneath – its game.

After the resounding losses to Australia in the tests, we can expect the Proteas brand to focus on its core achievement of recent times and position itself as a one day power player, and a five day re-builder. This approach will mitigate against over inflated expectations and channel effort towards the stronger component of the brand’s on-the-ground ability.

While the focus on core strength is necessary for the immediate health of the brand as a whole, the Proteas would do well to under-promise and over-deliver with regards to both aspects of the game for the foreseeable future. Indeed, if they had taken this approach at the beginning of the Australia clash, there would be a lot less brand repair work to do now.

Lesson #6 – Don’t panic, listen to your market, keep on innovating

Cricket is one of few sports in the world with the ability to consistently reinvent itself to appeal to its target market. First there was one day cricket, and now there is the Pro20 form of the game – wildly popular with a new cricket audience across the world. Pro20 and the local Standard Bank brand blitz (notable for the way it has directly targeted the SABC 3 TV viewer) offer sound reasons why the Protea brand is in good shape for positive long term growth.

If the powers that be can deliver a consistent leadership structure, and if the team on the field can deliver a good combination of performance, ethics and honest communication, they will grow their support base in years to come – win or lose. For this, the Proteas can thank the people in the sport with the nous to listen to the consuming public, and cater to evolving tastes. The Protea’s can be thankful they operate within a consistently innovative paradigm – one that will allow them to weather temporary storms and come out stronger for it.

After all, Shane Warne can’t bowl forever, can he?

About the author: Janice Spark is a director, and partner of Idea Engineers. She has more than 20 years of marketing, sales and advertising experience across a range of leading global and South African brands.

Spark launched her career at Standard Bank in 1984 where she pioneered specialised banking packages for high-end consumers, before moving on to pioneer the concept of ‘sell thru videos’ for Gallo Home Video.

As Marketing Director of Adcock Ingram in the late eighties, Spark oversaw the introduction of 15 successful new brands in a three-year period and helped achieve market leadership for the company’s hair care, skincare and household product ranges.

Spark went on to serve a the Director of Aramis South Africa where she introduced Tommy Hilfiger and DKNY to South Africa; entrenched Aramis as a market leader; and led Estee Lauder’s most profitable division in the international market.

In 2002, she co-founded Idea Engineers. Her vision was to establish a marketing communications agency that integrates the disciplines of brand strategy, brand communications (above and below the line advertising), reputation management and brand experience (alignment of brand and operations) into a seamless and holistic offering. Idea Engineers helps companies enhance market share, profitability and customer loyalty by managing and protecting an organisations most valuable asset: the brand.

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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