The battle’s done, and we kinda won…

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There are few things in PR and marketing more acutely studied than brand management. In the content era, it’s important that brands understand their strengths, their reputation and their relationship with their stakeholders.

With that comes brand equity and brand reputation, the intangible feeling people get when they think of a brand, and the commercial results that flow on from those feelings, that connection.

Those that care deeply about brand management will adjust their marketing mix to adapt to changing perceptions – through strategic planning, through clever marketing, you can create stakeholder loyalty.

Most importantly, the best brands are able to encapsulate exactly what they stand for in a few short sentences, when pressed or cornered. Articulate it, explain it, even understand intangible strengths in the brand because of their own specialised research.

So with that in mind – what exactly IS the brand of AFLW as season two has come to an end?

We’ve spoken often on this blog about AFLW not promoting or marketing the competition, but as season 2 has ended, there’s an even more vexing question. What exactly is this competition about it? What is its brand? What does it want to strategically achieve?

A lot of amazing things still happen every weekend in AFLW: girls get to meet their heroes, a women’s awards night was live on Fox Footy, Erin Philips and Daisy Pearce can appear on football shows and discuss AFLM freely with male players. We can gather in a like-minded community and discuss players, games, things we never had before…

Hell, there was a show called “Womens Footy” on Channel 9. CHANNEL 9!

It’s worth remembering that in 2016, we didn’t have these things. It’s been an amazing journey. So the brand of AFLW is strong right? Robust? The brand is based on amazing, inspiring women breaking barriers and challenging social norms….

And yet, and yet…

The best brands know where they are going, and strategically plan around it. AFLW has done none of that. Does it want to have short-term success, by tweaking the rules for more goals to be prettier for Channel 7? Does it want to be a long-term success or will it perpetually live in the moment, adjusting rules chasing the approval of ex AFLM players and indifferent Herald Sun letter writers?

Does it want to tell girls “this is your home” or “this is your zone?”

What fans does it want? The invested female fan, who just wants to support their favorite players, or some strange hybrid audience seeking summer television escapism? Is it going to reward the brand loyal of its fans with constant critiques and “suggestions” each time a game is a 4/10 in quality?

Does it want to support its female players or deliver the bare minimum?

After the memo came out, we talked about how it was a grim irony that this inspiring female competition had been told to look prettier and be more attractive by male committee demand.

It’s hard to stand behind a brand that dares to inspire when you can’t turn the lights on…

AFLW doesn’t know what it wants to be: and that’s something that has defined this season. Even the AFL website in the list of movers and shakers there was a mention about Nicole Livingstone (at #31) that she hadn’t put her stamp on the game yet, and hadn’t decided what her role is.

The strategic management of AFLW as a cared for long-term asset, so seemingly promised at its inception, has been torn apart, which leaves us asking again, what is the AFLW brand?

It’s hard to gather all the disparate threads and create a true brand analysis: how can you gather together stakeholders as far apart as rusted on loyal fans who support the women with passion and emotion through to Channel 7 staggering content around the Australian Open and the Jungle book, to Jeff Kennett writing articles about bow-legged lady pelvises (or something), through to an AFLHQ determined to rip up what “womens football” is and redefine it, flip it and pink it, and belie all the progressive stuff from season 1 in a search for….whatever audience it is they think they can get.

This is a league that sells womens football on Twitter by showing a 30 second clip of a stadium. That champions social progress for women literally playing the dark. That celebrates a womens Grand final by having its women run down a race unfit for purpose in the 20s. The rhetoric isn’t matched by reality, and that REALLY messes up the brand.

What we do know is this: there has been a distinct shift this season between ‘womens football” and “AFLW”, and perhaps this should be acknowledged more. AFLW as a brand construct defines itself by its purpose and its characteristics, and right now they are in direct opposition.

The best brand management comes from surety: always has, always will. Marketing and PR follows on from that strategic vision. Go and sell it, go and believe it. The stakeholders believe in a product, but those in charge truly don’t. They seem determined to ensure that football isn’t what AFLW is, not as we know it…

We mentioned in the last blog post those with the most invested are the last to surrender – the message from AFLW as a brand is those with the most invested are the first we need to disperse.

“AFLW” equally defines itself through Dema picking up a football for the Bankstown Bullsharks and a game they don’t think is good enough and will pick apart. The inspiring messaging can’t match the reality of the memos and the language around womens footy.

To like “womens footy” might be to not like “AFLW”, and that’s quite the contradiction, and a strange and bizarre way to end this season…

It’s also pretty terrifying, and speaking of which…

Become so tired, so much more aware

If season 2 had a battle for marketing, for promotion, for getting people to engage, season 3 might have a far scarier battle: what the game itself is supposed to look like.

It might seem strange that for a blog so strategically focused should decry a lack of strategic vision and then be so upset when the AFL sits down to sit down and plan for season 3.

Under more positive circumstances, it would be a positive that everyone emerged from a room on the same page, that they could communicate a vision for what they want AFLW to be. Out of that consultation could come fresh marketing ideas, a fresh vision, an acknowledgement of the mistakes and mis-steps of Season 2.

If all we had to worry about was tweaks around the edges, fan engagement, the odd change in interpretation, that wouldn’t be as loathed as what is promised for season 3.

This isn’t rule changes, which are always huffed and puffed about and then fade into the distance. The 3 point shot in basketball, the soccer backpass law, stricter holding the ball in AFLM? Outrage, and then the status quo. Tweaks are fine…if they tweaked a rule…maybe we’d be OK, with the sweetener being better marketing and support?

Brand equity could be rebuilt….but alas, that isn’t what is going to happen. They just want more goals to fit around the Channel 7 ad breaks.

Even in positive times, there would be an apprehension of AFLM inflicting a vision on AFLW anyway. For one thing, the AFLM doesn’t “do” fan engagement on these things. They bludgeon, they enforce, they impose. They speak in vague PR cliches about entertainment and ignore the people who enjoy womens football.

Remember AFLX? They spent and spent and SPENT to tell you how much you liked it, as Brad Johnson told you EVERYONE WAS HAVING FUN damn it…that’s what these rule changes will be like. They won’t be consultative rules, and who knows where it might end?

What happens if Steve Hocking gets head-hunted by another league, or Nicole Livingstone wanders off to fulfil her love of watching baseball? Is this a revolving door approach, each no person wandering in and using AFLW as their plaything, to trial their own rules and their own vision of football?

Steve Hocking has already said the womens game (sorry, AFLW, we need to change our language a bit) has a “blank piece of paper” for season 3.

Nicole Livingstone has said the game needs “a female lens”, female nomenclature, female language and a fresh coat of bright pink paint.

Gil McLachlan has floated the new 10 team competition will have conferences. The VFLW competition has had zones stuck upon it, 5 forwards inside the forward 50 at all times. Everyone is chipping in, but no one is sure what they want this to be and look like. Can they sell this league to you? Will they bother selling it to you or will they lecture you “this is what you want” as Daisy Pearce is lining up for a Zooper goal (brought to you by Special K) worth 12 points…

Yes, we are entering the “Game of Zones” era of AFLW, and despite all the claims of consultation with stakeholders, this is an infliction, not a democracy

Also, there are still the competing brand issues we talked about before: if AFLW really does have the pinkwash inflicted on it, how can it face the marketplace with a straight face and say “this league is the league for you girls!”

The league where a man was able to put his entire vision onto a female league is going to try and sell itself as female empowered? Really? Good luck with that…

And all of this is on top of a brand that lacks surety and confidence anyway. Instead of building on the gains of season 1, this brand, this league, blinked and retreated. From a marketing point of view, the missed opportunities this season are too long to mention.

Out of this surety, people are now scrambling to put their stamp on the game, to correct the off field failings of season 2 with corrections that would work themselves out organically? Brand management? This is brand panic.

Hey girls! Play footy! I mean we don’t think you’ll work out how to work your way through congestion, you’ll have to stick to an assigned formation, and we might yet move you around the field until we’re happy you won’t hurt yourself or your bow legged lady pelvis. But dare to inspire!

Strange. Strange messaging. Strange imaging. Damaging.

On Open Mike, they played a clip of Justin Leppitsch responding to a burst of Wayne Carey goals (Carey was playing forward on Leppitsch and kicked 5) by going forward and kicking 4 in response.

It was brilliant football, the kind they want to crush in AFLW. Stay in your lane, defenders defending, forwards forward. It’s a nightmarish vision of a “sport”…

For those Hocking acolytes, AFLW has one criteria: goals. It’s a reduction of its effectiveness to a soul-less box score. Compelling defensive football apparently isn’t going to be on the menu. Finals like intensity won’t be tolerated, organic growth isn’t on the menu.

The brand they want? Goals…maybe if there’s goals, the trolls will back off…

Of course those trolls will then mock our heroes being quicksanded in zones, and mock how easy it is to kick goals, and then what? Does Channel 7 step in again? 14 a side? 9 points per goal? Who knows…

To tie back to the original part of this post, we can conclude AFLW will be its own strange brand next season. Our inspiring heroes will be stuck in Hockings assigned zones, muddling through the rule of the week, stifled in their creativity…

Try and sell that as an inspiring brand….

 

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