Colours of success: What SA soccer clubs can teach rugby, cricket about branding

30 May 2024, Thursday

Rob Opie, a branding specialist, looks at why it is we see pink shirts on a field when we are expecting blue. Or multi-coloured shirts when they should be one tone. Don’t underestimate the power of a brand’s colour, he says. Think of the world’s biggest brands and you immediately know which colours they have claimed as their own. Starbucks green, BP green-and-yellow, HSBC red – these companies stick rigorously to their corporate colours as do all organisations that have bought into the value of developing and sticking to branding guidelines. Rob asks: why aren’t South Africa’s sporting brands getting this right? – JC

By Rob Opie*

As a sponsor, I was privileged to spend time inside the camps of all three of South Africa’s great soccer clubs, none more impressive than the Kaizer Chiefs branding machine. At the marketing helm at the time was brand strategy guru Emy Casaletti. She was simply superb in creating and building connections, which after all, is what marketing is all about.

Sponsors flocked to be part of the Amakhosi family. And the other two clubs, Pirates and Sundowns were also on the up. One thing they all understood clearly was what can be termed their ‘one thing’. They never stopped building and adding to their brand identity.

No one was allowed to tamper with brand identity. And a huge component of that brand identity was the power of colour. They took ownership of colour.

For cricket, it was no different when Benson & Hedges first introduced colour to cricket. They were superb marketers and many of us will never forget the power behind Clive Rice’s golden yellow Transvaal ‘mean machine’ at the time. Stadiums were filled to capacity.

Granted it was something new, but no one can deny that colour identity played a massive role in establishing brand identity. Players and supporters alike felt they belonged to something.

Fast forward to today and it’s become a bit of a circus for some of our cricket and rugby teams who do not take heed of what their soccer counterparts have built and achieved on the brand identity front. Of course, there are also many great success stories, but lessons are often not learnt, and brand identities are often steadfastly undermined.

On the other hand, brand opportunities also often go sadly missing, when one fails to understand when to hold on, and when to let go. Brand marketing requires a disciplined, but open minded approach. Let’s take a look at a few examples of late.

Last night I watched the Chevrolet Knights playing in navy attire, which I have no clue as to how it became their color of identity.  Even their Free State rugby colleagues seem to run on the field in a different jersey every time.

Have they not witnessed the immense power which the Dutch soccer supporters wield wherever they go? If one inherits colour ownership, one must surely exploit it, and orange has always been the colour associated with the Free State.

Why throw it all away? And why split your supporters’ club up in to fractions, all wearing different colours at the game?

Many years back Bobby Skinstad, who always has a few marketing tricks up his sleeve, led his Stormers team out in black. Yes, it indeed created a fantastic new hype in Cape Town, but he soon realised that black was an identity already owned by the Sharks, not the Stormers.

It was an exciting move, but it undermined brand identity. Up north the Blue Bulls, just like the All Blacks, have always been consistent and built a great brand identity – until recently, when they have chosen to play in pink, and even sometimes in camouflage attire.

No wonder, they are struggling to even make the semi finals these days. Imagine the All Blacks running out in cammo outfits? Brand identity must be guarded and kept succinct at all times.

Of course, colour also opens up potent branding opportunities, when one knows when to hold on, and when to let go! For some reason, the Highveld Lions cricket team has moved away from the golden /yellow colour identity, and have selected the color red.

Not sure why? But, herein likes the paradox of colour marketing.

The Golden Lions rugby team is a team that has only tasted success on a few occasions, and possibly again this weekend in the Currie Cup final. But, is their recent success sustainable?

They have never managed to get their fan base back to where it was in the Francois Pienaar golden years. And, when something is not working, it’s imperative to implement a radical tactical shift.

It’s time to move on and make changes, and the opportunity is now staring them in the face. They even call themselves the Golden Lions, but choose to hold onto the old Transvaal red.

Just the other day they made a call to play in ‘Diggers heritage’ jerseys, which the players surely understood, but must have meant little or nothing to their future breed of new, younger supporters? Why do it?

They need to look no further than the success of Kaizer Chiefs who embrace the colours of the golden city – JOZI. The colour gold is an immensely powerful marketing tool, so the Golden Lions must surely look to partner up with the Chiefs marketing platform , to build the “Pride of Jozi” – a city with all the financial backing to support a new direction.

It’s a kind of ‘regional royalty’ staring one in the face, much like the highly successful Indian IPL. The Golden Lions need to bring the City of Jozi on board  much like current Sharks CEO John Smit is doing by forging new partnerships with the City of eThekwini marketeers.

Yes, brand identity through colour ownership is a critical component of sustained success. Add to that, the power of partnership, and one has the building blocks of significance.

After all that is where Emy Casaletti has stood out above the crowd as a sports marketing guru for Kaizer Chiefs and many other sporting brands.

Finally, a success story worth watching as it unfolds is the building of brand identity for the Proteas nrand. Check it out, as they are certainly on the right path to sustained success and significance with their campaign entitled: #proteasfire.

It has immense potential for players and supporters alike. I just hope they do not start playing in cammo too soon! Sometimes, we all need to take heed of what our successful counterparts do, and do not do, and understand that orange may indeed be the new black.



Knowing when to implement change, and when not to implement change can give one the edge in sport! C’mon Lions!