Branding lessons from the British Lions

I recently returned from an amazing 12 day tour of New Zealand watching the British & Irish Lions rugby team take on the world champions in their own backyard. An estimated 20-25,000 Lions fans made the trip half way round the world to watch the series, with Lions supporters out-numbering the local fans inside the stadiums. The Lions ended up drawing the series, winning one test match, losing one and drawing the third.

But what is so attractive about the British Lions that they achieved such an incredible following, given that the chances of winning were slim, the winter weather was crap and getting to New Zealand was costly and time consuming? Below I look at why this might be the case and the branding lessons we can take out.

1. Create a compelling brand story

The first and most fundamental strength of the British Lions brand is the story on which it is based. The Lions is about much more than just a rugby team going on tour; it’s an epic quest to win against the odds in a foreign land. Every four years a Lions squad is created from the best players of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. They travel across the world and then have only a few weeks to play together before taking on one of the best teams in the world, rotating between South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. The task was always hard, reflected in the fact that the Lions have only won 15 out of the 37 test series played, and has become almost impossible in the modern, professional era. But the scale of the challenge is part of what makes the Lions narrative so compelling and dramatic. Fans like myself make the trip dreaming that they might be there to witness history in the making as the underdog rises to win.

Thinking about your own brand, have you gone beyond the simple product level to create a compelling narrative that captures your purpose and the role you want to play? Does this have some drama and tension in it to make it interesting?

2. Harness the power of brand properties

The Lions brand is rich in terms of brand properties:

  • Colour: the red colour is used in the shirts the players wear and inother promotional material and is incredibly strong. It helps create the ‘sea of red’ inside the stadiums where the Lions play. Indeed, the visible presence of Lions fans was so strong on the 2013 tour to Australia that the local rugby union resorted to giving away 50,000 gold-coloured safari hats for spectator to wear, as reported here.
  • Sonic: over the years a simple but powerful chant has been used by fans, who shout “Li-ons! Li-ons! Li-ons!” at the top of their voices. This becomes especially potent when sung simultaneously by 25,000 supporters.
  • Symbol: the Lions crest symbolises the four home nations coming together

Thinking about your own brand, have you built a series of brand properties that take different forms, including name, symbols, colours, typefaces etc.?

3. Harness fresh consistency 

The Lions brand has 125 years of history, with the first tour happening in 1888. Over time there has been a large degree of consistency that has helped create ‘memory structure’ for the Lions brand. The red coloured shirts have been used since 1950, over half a century of consistency. The basic structure of the tour has also been consistent, with the Lions playing away from home and almost always to the Southern Hemisphere (34 out of the 37 tours have been to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand). The element of scarcity has also been maintained: the tour only happens every four years, with the squad disbanding at the end of each test series.

Thinking about your own brand, which key elements (colours, slogans, symbols) are helping you build consistency over time to create memory structure? 

In conclusion, the success of the British & Irish Lions shows how to build a strong brand based on a rich, compelling narrative brought to life with distinctive properties that are built consistently over time.