Has the Socceroos ‘brand’ lost its fizz? SBI’s Bonita Mersiades revealed last week that Football Federation Australia has been shaken by a study into the national side’s sliding public support. Home attendances for Australia’s first three 2014 World Cup qualifiers averaged 25,000, down from 51,000 for the corresponding games in the 2010 campaign. The FFA is right to be concerned. You don’t just lose half your business without stopping to ask ‘why’. But is a failing brand really the problem here?
What’s in a brand?
Your brand is what pre-sells you in the minds of others. It gives them a reason to believe in you. But branding isn’t about reasoned argument or a rational hard-sell. A good brand need never explain itself. It exists as the immediate, obvious answer to an undeniable want.
Brands don’t need salesmen. Indeed that’s what makes them so persuasive. Their value isn’t insisted; it’s inherently felt. There’s no harm in encouraging Socceroos players to be more accessible to the media and to talk-up the Socceroos brand. They are polished professionals who love their country and would doubtless do anything to help support the national team. But if the Socceroos brand is weak then making the players spruik for their supper won’t save it.
Brands don’t live in media land or on spin-doctor scribble pads. They live in our heads and are built on what we think we already know. The Socceroos brand still has all the basic ingredients it had in 2006. Why? Because Australians don’t change in a hurry. By and large they’re living the same lives and thinking the same way as they did half a dozen years ago. Argue with someone and you’ll find it’s damn hard to change anyone’s mind about anything. The upshot of this is that once your brand finally slots into someone’s mind it’s hard to shake it out again.
People are still ready to cheer on the Socceroos. Successive World Cups have proved that they are world class. People get the enormity of the world game. There’s nothing really wrong with the Socceroos brand. It’s just that nothing much is being done with it.
Let’s tell a story
Nike is the world’s dominant sports lifestyle brand. They own the category hands down. Does that mean Nike can afford to advertise less than their competitors? Hardly. Nike know that keeping their brand story alive is crucial to staying number one. And they’re relentless about it.
For better or worse there isn’t much Australian football on commercial free-to-air TV. Want a greater TV presence? Start advertising the Socceroos brand. The history of sports promotion in this country shows that when you coin a big-picture television campaign that strikes at the heart of what makes a brand special the results are spectacular.
Advertising cemented World Series Cricket. Mojo’s legendary campaign convinced Australia that the game wasn’t about Kerry Packer or his money. It was about backing our mates – the Aussies.
Tina Turner was brilliant for Rugby League because she branded it as the leading national code. League was ‘simply the best’, and it looked a million bucks. Leadership is always a powerful brand. If you can attract a herd then others will always follow.
The AFL’s ‘Australia’s Game’ campaign also hits the brand nail right on the head. It’s a commanding, big-picture statement dressed as a self-evident truth. Saying that Australian rules is Australia’s game works because it sounds innocuously obvious. You could run that ad for the next 30 years and it would still ring true. And that’s exactly what good branding is all about.
For an advertisement to build on the Socceroos brand it needs to be more than a trite, tinny jingle. It must hold meaning. But it has to hold true for all Australians. The A League’s ‘We Are Football’ campaign was widely embraced by the football family. But what did it mean for people who weren’t sure if they were football or not? The Socceroos brand is about the nation. To keep building the brand the FFA need to find that irrefutably good feeling we all shared during the Socceroos’ golden run in Germany.
It’s not about the game
What makes following the Socceroos so special? It’s not just what’s happening on the pitch. It’s more than the game and the people who play it. When we watch the Socceroos the world is watching us. And we love to be watched.
We all want to be noticed. It’s what makes social media so intoxicating. It’s why Australians crave to know what visiting celebrities think of our country in every inane detail. Why was it so important for us to shiver in our thousands around big screens in the dead of night to watch our boys taking on the world? Sure, there was a warm communal buzz to it all. But the deep truth was that we reveled in the attention. We felt the gaze of the globe and we wanted to stand up and be seen.
The best stories and the best brands are the ones in which we see ourselves. The Socceroos are our nation’s finest football players, but the Socceroos brand is really all about us, standing in the world’s spotlight. Every Socceroos qualifier is an event that beams us around the world. But the world can’t see you if you’re not there.
Advertising that cuts to the heart of how we experience the Socceroos brand would help enormously in building enthusiasm for the team’s journey to Brazil. But in sports no brand is immune from one simple truth…
Fans follow success
The most powerful brands are based on market leadership. In sport, that’s called winning. Some claim the Socceroos brand has been spoiled by success. Consistent achievement is boringly bourgeois. The game and its stars have become greedy, selling out to sponsors and trading in their underdog charm for a sure yet soulless style of play.
What deluded, rabble-rousing rubbish!
You don’t always have to win, but you must make your fans feel like winners.
Was Cricket Australia handing out high fives when Australia lost the Ashes? Will the AFL ever see any of the $200 million they’re investing in western Sydney and the Gold Coast if the sides can’t turn the corner and become competitive?
The Socceroos brand is still intact, but perhaps fans are caught in a South African slump. After the 2006 World Cup we all felt like world-beaters. The Socceroos were a feel-good fairy-tale, and no doubt the afterglow of their achievement buoyed crowd numbers for the 2010 qualifiers.
Any Australian side that makes a World Cup should be celebrated. After all, there have only been three. But the Socceroos didn’t exactly bring that winning feeling back from South Africa. It was a fractured, forlorn campaign that ended in undignified finger pointing. Across all codes, when performances don’t match expectations and things get too tough the crowds drop off. The 2014 qualifiers are no exception.
The beauty myth
Some diehards might quibble with the quality of the Socceroos play, arguing that it’s not beautiful enough to attract fans through the gates. But quality is a hard thing to quantify.
Toyota is the world’s number one car brand. Does that mean that Toyota cars are assembled better than Fords, Chryslers or Volkswagens? Are they made with better components? Is anyone really sure? Brands are a measure of perception, not quality.
The Socceroos may not play like Brazil or Barcelona, but they don’t have to. Let’s face it, most Australians don’t know their four-three-three from their four-four-two. They may not yet have the nous to pick apart he game’s tactical nuances and read its flow, but they know that the Socceroos are worth buying a ticket to see. If they’re good enough to make the World Cup they must be world class. This might not satisfy the purists, but for many people the Socceroos brand is assurance enough that watching them play is money well spent. But what does the average punter know about Asian football? Do they have the same confidence in the quality of the Socceroos’ opponents?
Does Asian football have a brand?
Ask someone on the street where the best footballers come from and they’ll probably say Brazil. Some might say England. Perhaps Italy or Argentina might get a mention. Odds-on it will be a European or South American country.
Asian football might well have built a brand within Asia. But by and large most Australians don’t consider themselves Asian, and when they think Asia they don’t think football (assuming they know just what football you’re talking about).
Asia is just not a football brand within this country. If you’re building a narrative around our Asian qualifiers it’s hard to make it compelling when no one’s heard of our opponents or is quite sure if they’re any good. Does this sound simplistic? No doubt. But it’s how people think.
For all the FFA’s worry about the Socceroos brand, perhaps it needs to develop a plan for building the Asian game’s brand within our shores to make World Cup qualifiers more meaningful. Is it lingering white-Australian ignorance that holds our country back from embracing Asian football? Some may choose to think so. But how can the football community take the high ground when for 50 years the game has squandered the chance to build regular rivalries with our nearest neighbours? We were once the technical equals of Japan and Korea. Instead of strangers we could have grown together as peers, rivals and friends. Indeed history tells us that the Socceroos spirit was born in Asia with an unbeaten run at the 1967 Friendly Nations Cup staged in Vietnam. We had an early ticket into the region, but sadly the game’s custodians missed the boat. Fortunately there’s always time to catch up. But it will take time.
A healthy crowd of 40,000 in Origin-mad Brisbane last week shows that the Socceroos brand still has legs. There’s a feeling you get when you follow the Socceroos, and more Australians have experienced it than ever before. The team will sometimes stumble, and it may take years of competition to kindle a meaningful, educated rivalry with our Asian neighbours. But the Socceroos will always be strong so long as Australia continues producing players who can take us to the World Cup. Qualification and the chance to stand in world sport’s biggest spotlight is the key to everything.