Insights into litigation, sports law, media and legal culture

How Nat Fyfe turned round his AFL Club’s negative brand equity

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – SEPTEMBER 28: Nat Fyfe of the Dockers is announced as the winner of the 2015 Brownlow Medal at Crown Palladium on September 28, 2015 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Was it only a few days ago that media headlines across the land decried the thuggery of Fremantle Dockers fans? In the course of losing an Australian Football League preliminary final at home, fans had behaved appallingly, with reports of violence towards women, and unsociable activities towards the opposing players. Whether it was the AFL’s fault for fostering a cauldron-like atmosphere for a vital game, or a lop-sided number of Dockers’ fans in their amphitheatre at home, the Fremantle Dockers were on the nose.

In short, over on the East Coast of Australia, we liked it when the Fremantle Dockers lost. A lot.

Now wind forward a mere couple of days, and Nat Fyfe has won the Brownlow Medal, awarded to the best and fairest player in the AFL competition each year.

Nat Fyfe is also from the Fremantle Dockers. He is the first Fremantle Dockers player to have won a Brownlow Medal. Fyfe had played the preliminary final on a fractured leg, limping in the kind of way that made observers wince. As he said during his acceptance speech, when you declare yourself fit to play, you are obliged to live up to your commitment.

The feel good nature of the win is undeniable. Examples of headlines include: ‘Best Brownlow Speech. Ever’ (Herald Sun); ‘Brownlow Medal 2015 after party: Nat Fyfe stars again’ (Herald Sun); in a reference to Fyfe’s decision to take a mate rather than a girlfriend, ‘Is Barlow the best Brownlow date ever?’ (The Age); ‘Fyfe: the full football package’ (The Age); and ‘Brownlow Medal: Nat Fyfe’s dad just keeps on truckin’ the day after’ (WA Today).

Fyfe is from Lake Grace: 345 kilometres east of Perth; population 500. His dad owns a trucking business called Fyfe’s transport. Interviewed the day after his son’s win, his dad was driving a truck full of sheep to a nearby property. Apparently a few of his fellows were on holidays but he mused his son might be a bit busy to help, adding: “And he would have to tidy himself up a little bit to join the transport industry”. Fyfe has the kind of hair kindly described as ‘unkempt’ by older conservative types and ‘trendy’ by everyone else. He could easily have a surfboard under the arm rather than a football.

The story of Fyfe, the country boy, plays into the story telling we often have about Australia and ourselves. He is a great example of how stories, and sport, bring us together and form part of a wider narrative about our shared lives.

How can it be that in a matter of hours, one’s negativity towards Fremantle, one’s sense of schadenfreude, delighting in the team’s failures or misfortunes, had changed to (some level) of gentle benevolence?

Even when Fyfe thanked his coach, his mentors at the Club and his fellow players, one sensed the general mood towards the Club had softened.

What makes a great brand ambassador?

Reflecting on the changeable nature of our emotions, and how easily they can be influenced, it is no surprise that, off-field, Nat Fyfe is swiftly become a one-man-brand juggernaut. He is a brand ambassador for the wool industry (see him celebrate the Fibre of Football here). He is a brand ambassador for Auskick. He has media deals in Perth. He has a car deal with Lexus. He has a hat sponsor (see hatlocker.com). He has invested in his own clothing label called Saint Street.

Understanding the power of brands is a complex business. Characteristics of a successful brand ambassador are usually said to be things like “likeability”, “personality”, “credibility”, “reliability”, “professionalism” and “versatility”.

Those who saw the humble, relaxed manner in which Fyfe dealt with the burden of favouritism for the Brownlow Medal, his articulate and considered acceptance speech, as well as his growing commercial interests and fierce competitiveness on the football field, will no doubt accept he has these attributes.

However, this really only scrapes the surface in helping us understand how our emotions can be manipulated so easily. How can one person change our negative feelings towards a club into benevolence in the course of a matter of hours? What is the essence of the communications experience leading to this outcome?

In the field of commerce, where ‘brand power’ can lead people to reach for their wallets, the need to understand how people’s decision-making ability can be influenced is heightened even further.

Now imagine trying to explain this intangible experience to a court. Add to this the fact that judges are typically logical in nature. Tapping into the intuitive side of their personalities (whether it be right or left brain) is unlikely to come naturally. Explaining to a judge that the ‘vibe’ of ‘likeability’ meant that a competitor has passed off their brand unlawfully is unlikely to go very far.

In a famous case brought by the makers of Red Bull energy drink against an alleged rip off energy drink called Live Wire, Red Bull grasped the task of explaining brand power to the court with both hands. Its argument was so convincing, Red Bull even won.

In the Red Bull case, the names of the products were different, but so the argument went, the colour scheme was exactly the same. Readers of the case became familiar with “the diagonal thrust”. Red Bull convinced a court that Live Wire “sailed too close to the wind” in its endeavours to gain, at virtually no cost to Sydneywide, the benefit of Red Bull’s massive advertising and marketing campaign conducted over the preceding two or three years. Because of the similar colour scheme, and with limited consideration, consumers were likely to pick up a Live Wire can in the mistaken belief it was Red Bull.

Marketing expert Dr Beaton described the “vibe” in that case as the “gestalt” of the Red Bull Brand. The court was persuaded that “gestalt” meant consumers’ associations with the brand. One needed to consider more than the physical elements and packaging but also “personalities”, as well as “associations with the brand and branding devices used to create associations, including advertising”.

The “gestalt” was therefore the essentially the central and fundamental image used in building consumer recognition and preference for the brand.

Following the Red Bull case, this concept of ‘associations’ has become a familiar theme in marketing studies and legal cases in Australia over recent years.

Nat Fyfe: The ultimate brand association

If one applies the above concept to the Fremantle Dockers, it would be clear to many of us that the ‘brand’ of the Fremantle Dockers is more than just a name, some trade indicia, the occasional anchor and a song.

The Fremantle Dockers brand is made up of the associations we have with the Club, good or bad.

When we think of Fremantle Dockers, so the non-leading question goes, what is called to mind?

In recent times, what is called to mind, for non-supporters at least, might not have been good. Violence and bad behaviour lead to very negative emotions. These in turn make us think of the Club in negative terms. According to marketing experts, these associations, via a process of linkages, essentially become the basis on which we recognise the brand of the Club; we link the two in our minds. It is not a literal process of recognition with a brand; it is a subliminal process of linkages within the brain.

Now consider Nat Fyfe. The feelings of goodwill he has generated substitute for the feelings of ill will. Good thoughts are the associations we then have with the Club. Should Fyfe’s star continue to rise, there is every chance that his influence could become a predominant means of ‘linking to’ thoughts of Fremantle Football Club.

In short, whether you call it the “gestalt”, the “vibe” or just plain dumb luck, the more Fyfe stamps his imprint in the minds of supporters, the more Fremantle Dockers will benefit as a whole. Through Fyfe, the Club can grow not just brand recognition, but brand equity.

 

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