Former Victorian premier, and ex-Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett dropped the M word on Melbourne radio this week, proclaiming that Melbourne and North Melbourne should merge as it would create a “strong Melbourne brand”. It’s hard to know where Jeff’s lone crusade to put mergers back on the AFL agenda is coming from. It’s certainly not derived from any understanding of how good branding works.
If mergers created strong brands, if they were so good for the bottom line and putting bums on seats, then why aren’t the big clubs scrambling to merge and become super clubs?
If Melbourne and North can benefit from a merger, then surely Richmond, Carlton, Collingwood or Essendon could reap even bigger benefits from such a union? And what about interstate clubs? Wouldn’t a Fremantle and West Coast merger give them 100 percent of the West Australian market?
The big clubs have no interest in merging because they know it’s bad branding and hence bad for business.
In fairness to Jeff, some larger clubs have seriously stared down the prospect of a merger. John Elliott put a Carlton merger with North Melbourne squarely on the table during his presidency. And Kennett himself supported a Hawthorn merger with Melbourne back in 1996. Either move would’ve been a sad capitulation for the clubs involved.
The best brands stand alone
Branding is the art of differentiation. It’s about standing apart from your competitors, not blurring into them. To become better brands, clubs like Melbourne and North Melbourne desperately need to build onfield rivalries, not meekly entertain talk of flying the merger flag.
The best brands are focused like a laser. They occupy a single clear position in people’s minds. They are what they’ve always been. They’re not flaccid, catch-all concoctions. Instead of trying to be all things to all people they mean something special to a defined audience.
Hawthorn have revived their club on and off the field by focusing on their history, not erasing it. ‘Always Hawthorn’ is their membership cry for 2012. It’s a big promise; a pact that enrolls supporters into the club’s grand tradition.
Collingwood haven’t prospered by being inclusive. They haven’t expanded their base by softening their image and bringing outsiders into the fold. Collingwood has grown by being obnoxiously Collingwood. “It’s us against them” is their 2012 slogan. Like all good brands there’s no ambivalence about what they stand for.
How would a Melbourne Kangaroos/North Demons brand stack up against these powerhouses? Instead of having one focused brand the club would be pulling in two different directions, trying to convince Dees and Kangas fans that the new team is just as special as the Melbourne/North Melbourne of old. It’s a tough sell. Can a merged team ever take the place of the club you’ve barracked for since you were a kid?
If onfield success comes swiftly then many fans will no doubt hang on and make the best of it. Some will walk away, but it’s hard to completely let go of lifetime rituals. Football though is cyclical, and the hard times are never far away. The strength of your brand comes to the fore not when you’re flying, but when you’re up against the wall. A Frankenstein club detached from the lifeblood of tradition is going to find it tough to arouse much pride and passion when the chips are down. Will fans feel it’s worth fighting for a merged entity that they adopted out of reluctance?
Melbourne mergers are bad for the AFL
A merger won’t strengthen North or Melbourne. And it won’t strengthen the AFL. The league’s greatest strength is its stranglehold over the Melbourne market. Why is Melbourne so fanatical about the AFL? Because everyone has a side. We’re all in. When someone asks ‘who do you barrack for’ you know they’re talking footy.
When you’re a clear market leader like the AFL is in Melbourne your one job is to press your advantage and saturate the marketplace. Smother it. Suffocate it. Give your competition no air to get their message out. If you start culling Melbourne teams then you tear holes in Melbourne’s blanket fanaticism. Cynicism and disillusionment have a habit of rubbing off. I’ve no doubt that the Sydney Swans’ task of gaining a foothold in rugby league mad Sydney has been made that much easier by 30 years of mergers and expulsions from the NSWRL/ARL/NRL.
We buy into brands, not markets
There’s clearly a line of logic running though Kennett’s clinical market prescription: 33,000 Melbourne members + 30,000 North Melbourne members equals a membership base of 63,000. Halve the current combined staff, halve the player wages, halve the overheads and on paper you have a potential giant.
It’s funny though. Have you ever noticed how these prophets of free market forces never quite nail the way that branding shapes people’s participation in a marketplace? What we buy into is usually determined by our emotional investment in brands. We aren’t motivated by what’s actually in our best material interests – it’s what we perceive to be in our interests that matters. A North Melbourne/Melbourne merger will always be perceived by each team’s rusted on supporters as something lost rather than something gained. The best brands are inspiring, not the product of glum resignation. And that’s ultimately why a compromised Demons/Kangaroos brand will amount to less than the sum of its parts.
This first appeared on Anthony’s blog.