SA’s first sporting superbrand
THEY’RE NOTHING if not ambitious. The Blue Bulls’ business objective is to be one of the best sports brands in the world. And anybody who saw the show of national support for the Bulls in the Super 14 rugby final would have no doubt that a big step towards that objective has been taken.
Unquestionably it’s already one of the best brands – not just sports brands – in South Africa, whether measured by awareness or love and respect. It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to call it the Manchester United of South African rugby – though this would be disputed by the Sharks, South Africa’s other big sporting brand, which arguably has the best supporters’ base worldwide of any rugby team.
Support for the Bulls is “like a religion,” says Brand Wealth founder Thomas Oosthuizen. “There’s more emotion invested in the Bulls than in any other brand in the country.”
“Sports fans want one thing,” says Sean McCoy, of HKLM Branding and Design: “Victory. Deliver that and you are the darling. But fans, like other brand advocates, can be fickle.”
Blue Bulls Company CEO Barend van Graan is fully aware of this. “Loyal fans will support you through thick and thin, but when the team doesn’t perform on the field, it immediately impacts on the cash gate, merchandising and concessionaires sales. It’s important for the brand and supporters that the team wins.”
The business strategy has evolved from nine years ago when the Bulls were at a low ebb on the field, and team management was looking for ways to rejuvenate the team and its support base. It’s built on two platforms – the team and the stadium, Loftus Versfeld.
It’s a matter of pride to Van Graan that “the Bulls have been transformed from an Afrikaans brand to a modern sports brand firmly positioned in the new South Africa”. Evidence lies in the statistical breakdown. Whites now account for only 38% of Blue Bulls supporters, but stadium attendances don’t reflect this as many black supporters are elsewhere in the country.
This is a challenge, says Brand de Villiers, CEO of SAIL Group, the sports marketing company that owns a 50% stake in the Bulls. Ticket sales, season tickets and suite rentals account for 70% of total income, which is about R100m a year. And it’s profitable – though no one is giving away how profitable. Second biggest revenue source is sponsorship, led by the name sponsor, Vodacom. (The team is known as the Vodacom Blue Bulls in the Absa Currie Cup, and the Vodacom Bulls in the Super 14.)
Success has come from an all-round focus on excellence, combining top players, professional coaching, scientific conditioning and training programmes, long-term partnerships with sponsors – and winning. The Bulls have always been a force in South African rugby, but in the tougher regional competition its emergence has been more recent. It has come a long way since 2002, when it came 12th.
The business plan for the years ahead involves re-engineering, reorganising and revitalising the organisation on and off the field of play. “We’ve still got a long way to go,” says De Villiers. “We’re just beginning to work towards the stature of a team like Manchester United.”
A true Bulls supporter!