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The Lomu Effect: How one man changed rugby union

On Wednesday 18th November, as we awoke to the news that All Blacks great Jonah Lomu had passed away, the first tribute I saw posted on Facebook was from my mum. She is not the slightest bit interested in sport yet, such was the impact of the legend of Lomu, had been moved enough to write a post on the great man. I suppose this could be described as the 'Lomu Effect'.I count myself lucky to have crossed paths a number of times with Jonah during his all-too-short life, with my first meeting arising when I was fortunate enough to attend a Hall of Fame dinner in London. Jonah was there in an immaculate suit and had an unmistakable aura, which increased my nervousness as I approached him to request an autograph. I shouldn't have been worried. He was so kind and had so much time for me.

About 15 years later, I came across Jonah again during Rugby World Cup 2015. He was still the warm, friendly guy I had first met as a youngster; a guy who had time for everyone. He still had that aura, something usually associated with football’s megastars. Following him around that day were his little boys, both wearing All Blacks shirts with 'Lomu 11' on the back. He had conquered the sporting world and had stood upon its summit; now he was focused on being a father, perhaps a tougher feat. It is this that is most tragic about his sudden passing.

Going back to his playing days, Lomu's emergence on the world stage swept away rugby's traditional style and heralded a new dawn. Simply put, he was a professional athlete playing an amateur game. He turned heads with his unique combination of athleticism, brute force and beautifully balanced running style. In one tournament he changed the sport forever, helping to boost the appeal of rugby worldwide.

There is no doubt the sport would eventually have gone professional, but Jonah helped accelerate the transition. The 'Lomu Effect' from the 1995 Rugby World Cup had people talking about the Kiwi giant in homes, pubs and workplaces around the world – attracting people who had never watched a game of rugby before.

Soon after the '95 RWC, the 'Lomu Effect' led Rupert Murdoch to enter into negotiations with SANZAR to secure the rights to the newly established Tri-Nations and Super 12, and in doing so helped launch rugby into the professional era. Lomu's former agent, Phil Kingsley-Jones, revealed that one of the key points raised in the negotiations was that Sky wanted to ensure Lomu would be playing for NZ as he was the blockbuster star who would drive audience figures. Lomu had offers from the NFL but, fortunately for rugby, he stayed put.It wasn't just on the pitch that Lomu saw success, as he also became the face of the sport off it. One of the first TV ads I can remember was for Pizza Hut, featuring Jonah and the Underwood brothers, poking fun at how the big man had swatted them away on the pitch.
Adidas further increased his legend with the iconic photo-shoot on the banks of Lake Wakatipu in Queenstown (see above image) to promote the All Blacks kit. In 2008, they named him in their Hall of Fame, further cementing his legacy as the first global superstar of the sport. Codemasters even launched a computer game dedicated to the big man in 1997 - Jonah Lomu Rugby the first ever rugby union game - that reflected his status as one of the world's most marketable stars. Other players have since reached global superstar status in the game, such as Jonny Wilkinson, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, but no-one comes close to Jonah.He became bigger than rugby; bigger than sport even, and was elevated to a level reserved for the likes of Pele and Muhammad Ali. Brand Lomu continued to grow even when his playing days finished and this year, around RWC 2015, his fame was as strong as ever. The fact that news of his passing at the young age of 40 was a top story on all international news outlets, when so much else has been going on in the world, shows how big a deal he was.He was a man mountain on the pitch and a gentle giant off it. He changed rugby forever, showing how stars of the sport could promote the game outside of its traditional fan base. He was the perfect ambassador for rugby, the perfect ambassador for sport and the perfect ambassador for how to carry oneself through life.

The 'Lomu Effect' will live on.

The Rugby World Cup 2011 Post Mortem

Over a month on from the Rugby World Cup Final and the post mortems are just about complete. Global TV audiences of 4 billion have been reported, social media round-ups published, teams of the tournament have been selected by all and sundry, and the New Zealand Herald has discovered some other sports to write about. Only England seems relentlessly stuck in review and recrimination mode, with new personnel and processes being announced on a weekly basis. While the RFU sifts through the carnage of dwarf-throwing, ferry jumping, ball-swapping and under-performing, here’s a slightly lighter examination of the brand marketing activity that surrounded the world’s third biggest sporting event.

In the previous Synopsis, Synergy’s new head of content, Colin Burgess, outlined the key ingredients for successful content that will illicit the deepest audience engagement: authority, authenticity – and the holy grail of all marketing – making it memorable. Applying those criteria to sponsor content during the Rugby World Cup goes a long way to explaining why activity might or might not have resonated with rugby fans.

Authority first. This is largely determined by the content’s provenance – it needs to be produced and delivered by a trusted and credible source. Some brands activating around the Rugby World Cup have a natural advantage in the authority stakes for various reasons:

1) Their inherent role in the game and on the pitch (the likes of adidas, Nike and Gilbert)

2) Through their long-standing presence as a rugby sponsor (see O2, Guinness and Heineken)

3) By their connection with the host nation (for example Air New Zealand and Tourism New Zealand)

Throwing in a few brand ambassadors is another well-trodden path to creating or supplementing a brand’s natural authority and giving the content a credibility boost. A great example of this, and fantastic use of owned media, came from Air New Zealand, who painted their fleet black and produced a safety video featuring members of the All Blacks team. Nearly 1m online views for a 4 minute safety video. Job well done.

On to authenticity and content that connects through personal or social relevance. To get the kitemark of rugby authenticity, sponsors adopted a variety of techniques:

1) Showing an understanding and empathy for the particular humour, culture and spirit of rugby fans

2) Playing on the history and heritage of the game and previous tournaments

3) Tapping into events as they happen in the tournament to become part of the narrative of the Rugby World Cup

Below are Synergy's nominations for the brands that most successfully delivered authentic content during the World Cup, embodying those three techniques.  But in keeping with rugby’s community spirit, please add your own nominations for the best brand content around the 2011 Rugby World Cup in the comments section below:

O2, with a tradition of giving free pies and pints to customers at Twickenham, adapted their customer proposition to fit early morning rugby viewing. Ashton donning an apron, Jonny making tea (after numerous practice sessions, no doubt), and Jonno with the control (no comment...). Relevant content from a long-standing rugby sponsor. If only it had been Guinness not Greene King in the breakfast packs...

Steinlager proved that an ambush marketer can still exhibit authority (what is more relevant to All Blacks supporters than beer, and a Kiwi brand at that?), authenticity (connecting through the collective anguish of New Zealand’s Rugby World Cup chokes) and a brilliant creative idea (reviving the Steinlager white can)...
Wilkinson Sword showed their quick thinking and wit by creating a pre-Final advert encouraging Lievremont to shave his ridiculous moustache.

It was precisely the fact that these campaigns came from a place of authority and authenticity that made them the most memorable.

But, all in all, the Rugby World Cup will not go down in the Sponsorship Hall of Fame as a high-water mark of sponsorship activity.  So what was missing from sports marketing activity and particularly content around Rugby World Cup 2011? The answer is 'just about everything' from the 4th Era of Sponsorship: interactivity, genuine collaboration and contribution from fans within brand campaigns (beyond the standard encouragement to tweet a hashtag...), exciting use of mobile, and memorable, game-changing innovation.

Let’s hope brands were keeping their powder dry for 2012, and the unprecedented marketing spend we are going to see around the Olympic Games.  And let’s also hope that by Rugby World Cup 2015, we’ll be seeing more innovative, truly engaging and memorable content than this:

Wilkinson Sword showed their quick thinking and wit by creating a pre-Final advert encouraging Lievremont to shave his ridiculous moustache.

It was precisely the fact that these campaigns came from a place of authority and authenticity that made them the most memorable.

But, all in all, the Rugby World Cup will not go down in the Sponsorship Hall of Fame as a high-water mark of sponsorship activity.  So what was missing from sports marketing activity and particularly content around Rugby World Cup 2011? The answer is 'just about everything' from the 4th Era of Sponsorship: interactivity, genuine collaboration and contribution from fans within brand campaigns (beyond the standard encouragement to tweet a hashtag...), exciting use of mobile, and memorable, game-changing innovation.

Let’s hope brands were keeping their powder dry for 2012, and the unprecedented marketing spend we are going to see around the Olympic Games.  And let’s also hope that by Rugby World Cup 2015, we’ll be seeing more innovative, truly engaging and memorable content than this: