To rebrand or reposition the Springbok brand?
SOME OF THOSE arguing strongly recently for retaining the Springbok as the emblem of the South African rugby team have suggested that it is a “commercial” brand that contains significant brand value.
There are a number of ways to establish the value of a brand. Marketing guru Kevin Lane Keller challenges brand managers to consider how their chosen customers would respond to the following questions: (1) Who are you? (brand identity) (2) What are you? (brand meaning) (3) What do I think or feel about you? (brand responses) (4) What kind of association and how much of a connection would I like to have with you? (brand relationships).
So, how might the Springbok’s customers and prospective customers answer these questions?
Most would agree that the Springbok name and emblem enjoys widespread recognition worldwide. Brand meaning and responses relate to the set of associations that customers have of the brand, that indicate what they feel the brand stands for, and whether they like those associations or not. If we consider what meaning the Springbok has held for South Africans, we find very strong and very different perspectives. Some, such as President FW De Klerk in 1991, argued that the Springbok was “worn with pride by every South African regardless of race and colour.” President Nelson Mandela, when attempting to influence the decision of the National Sports Council in 1995, suggested that there was a “real possibility that if we… accept the Springbok for rugby as our symbol, we will unite the country as never before.” These perspectives talk to a set of very positive associations, often held and spoken about after significant Springbok victories.
As with any brand, however, some customers (or in this case prospective customers) may hold very negative associations of the Springbok brand. Some, such as Sam Ramsamy in 1991 and Mluleki George in 1995, suggested that the Springbok held “too many hurtful associations” and was an “apartheid symbol.” This perspective sees rugby as the “granite rock of apartheid” and is justified in part by Prime Minister John Vorster’s comment in 1971 that the “Springbok rugby team is not representative of the whole of South Africa. It has never been that… It is representative of the whites of South Africa.” It is a view supported by Tommy Bedford, one of the few English speaking Springbok Captains during apartheid, who suggested in 1989 that “for over two-and-a-half decades the primary agenda of rugby administration was mainly to promote the Afrikaner, his Church, his Party, his Government and the Broederbond.”
The final question to consider when evaluating brand value is the depth and nature of the relationships customers have with the brand. Again, if we consider the evidence we find some people identifying strongly with the Springbok brand and others very strongly against. Stellenbosch students protested in 1991 to retain the Springbok, while many anti-apartheid activists protested in the 1970s and 1980s under the banner of “no normal sport in an abnormal society.” Many have experienced the euphoria and shared excitement after World Cup victories in 1995 and 2007, while many passionately supported any Springbok opposition during the 1960s and 1970s.
Given this evaluation, how valuable is the Springbok brand? In part it depends on whom SA Rugby decides it would like its customers to be. The evidence suggests that, although there are many who have very strong and positive associations and relationships with the Springbok, there are many others who have as strong negative perceptions of the name and emblem. Can SA Rugby choose to serve the one group and ignore the other? Most would agree that for the game and business of rugby to grow and develop, it needs to appeal to more customers, not less.
In doing this SA Rugby has at least two options: reposition the existing Springbok brand or rebrand the national team. Rebranding the team could involve the creation of a new brand, a new name and emblem, with new meaning and the opportunity to create fresh brand relationships. In the same way that Andersen Consulting was transformed into Accenture, SA Rugby could create an inspiring new brand for the national team and develop a set of activities that embed the brand in the hearts and minds of their chosen customers.
Another option is to reposition the Springbok brand to directly address negative associations and confer an alternate set of values and meaning to the brand. This option could see significant institutional change in rugby in South Africa and the national team to actively demonstrate that the repositioned Springbok brand has clearly broken with any hint of the past. In repositioning a brand, actions often speak much louder than words. Some, including me, would argue for repositioning the Springbok brand, accepting the significant, difficult and lengthy process this will probably entail.
Research suggests that politics is about the manipulation of symbols as a precondition for the exercise of real power. As Max du Preez stated in 1999: “If only sport was merely about physical competition between individuals and teams. But it is more about passion, symbolism, nationalism and big, big money.” In our transformational society, as in every society, sport and politics are closely linked. As we answer the call to debate the future of the Springbok, we should fully consider the depth of our arguments, especially those dealing with the business of brands.
Michael Goldman is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science. He teaches, researches and consults in a number of marketing-related areas, including sports marketing and sponsorship.