Purpose to Drive Performance: Harlequins Rugby
This week I’m glued to Prep to Win, a new Amazon Prime series. This ‘fly on the wall’ sports documentary follows Harlequins, the rugby team I’ve supported for 15 years. The show reveals how defining and acting on an inspiring brand purpose was a key factor in driving drastically improved performance, as we will explore in this post.
For non-rugby followers, Quins pulled off an amazing turnaround during the 2020/21 season. Back in January 2021, the team languished in 7th position in the English Premiership. Long suffering supporters like myself hadn’t enjoyed a home win since the previous August. The head coach, Paul Gustard, left the club “by mutual consent”, leaving it leaderless. And yet only five months later the team won the Premiership final for the first time in nine years, to the delight of me and my daughter Elodie (below)! And as I write this post, the club is in 3rd place in the league with a good chance of making the end of season playoffs again.
1. Look back at what made you famous
‘Brand archaeology’ to look back at what made you famous is a key part of any purpose project. Quins undertook just this sort of process, helped by a consultant called Owen Eastwood. Owen had worked previously worked with Gareth Southgate’s England Football team and the British Olympic team. He carried out over 50 interviews with a broad range of stakeholders, including current and former players and the club’s owners. Owen’s findings were encouraging and gave some hope of a turnaround. “After spending a year delving deep into Harlequins’ history, its DNA, and what being part of Harlequins means, I passionately believe this Club can go from strength to strength,” he observed (1).
2. Build purpose on brand truth
The deep dive into Harlequin’s history highlighted how the club had become famous by playing attacking, daring and entertaining rugby. The Quins way of playing was as colourful as the club’s famous jersey, one of the most recognisable in the world of sport. However, under Paul Gustard the team had strayed away from this way of playing, becoming more risk-averse. “Gustard’s emphasis on discipline and organisation grated with a side that had been known for its adventure,” observed a Guardian article (2). Not only were the team not winning, the players weren’t enjoying playing. And the games weren’t fun for fans to watch.
The insight work was used to create a clear brand purpose to guide the way forward: To excel, entertain and inspire by being true to ‘the Quins Way’. This purpose nicely captures the idea that the club is not just about the desire to excel by winning. Being a Quins player is also about entertaining and inspiring people.
The Quins Way mentioned in the purpose is then brought to life with four guiding principles, captured by the acronym ‘TRUE’:
- Tempo: playing at a speed that makes it hard for the opposition to keep up
- Relate: creating emotional bonds that tie the team together
- Unconventional: being daring, innovative and fearless on the field
- Enjoyment: above all, playing with a smile on your face
3. Turn purpose into action
Defining a clear purpose for you brand is important. But the key to success is to then deliver it through the whole organisation, as shown by our brandgym research with marketing directors (below). In the case of Quins, the purpose was used to create a radical shake up of how the team prepared for and then played in matches.
One of the unconventional actions after the axing of Paul Gustard was to not immediately replace him with another head coach. Rather, the four specialist coaches worked more collaboratively as a leadership team: Nick Evans (attack), Adam Jones (scrum), Jerry Flannery (defence and lineout) and Charlie Mulchrone (kicking). “It was an experiment and a challenge to sport’s preoccupation with one big alpha boss,” explained a Times article (3). “We trusted each other. And we made a pact that when the shit hit the fan we wouldn’t panic,” explained Adam Jones. In addition, the players were given more of a voice to express their views.
The biggest and most fundamental change was to re-connect with the Quins playing style, as captured in the TRUE philosophy. “Suddenly the shackles were off. A stifled game became liberated,” as the Times article described. This is a great example of focusing on amplifying your strengths, in this case attacking flair, rather than fixing your weaknesses, as the team had attempted to do under Gustard. As the team re-discovered their true playing ‘DNA’ results started to improve, creating more enjoyment and boosting confidence. “There is a renewed joy about being at Quins. Fast rugby, coaches who listen, an attacking mindset,” as the Times reported (3). This in turn encouraged the team to stick to applying the new purpose and so on, in a positive, upwards spiral.
Practice and preparation
Important changes were made to the way the team practiced, to prepare them to play the Quins way. In particular, the focus was on fitness and keeping the players fresh for match day, to be able to play at pace with a tempo other teams would struggle to keep up with. Another unconventional move was scrapping a key feature at most clubs called “the captain’s run” practice the day before a match. “The players asked why they should come in 24 hours before a match, spending up to three hours commuting, to rehearse moves they’d worked on all week,” as the Times explains (3).
Another key change was to reduce the amount of physical contact during training to the lowest level of any leading club. High-tech mouthguards made by a company called Protech provide live monitoring of the forces felt by each player in every collision. Use of this system reduced training contact by c.70%. With much less contact and an extra day off, the team were able to focus on explosive speed work. “I feel better than I did when I was 25,” reported scrum half Danny Care.
This new approach to training played in key role in preparing the team to pull off the biggest come-back in Premiership rugby history in the semi-final against hot favourites Bristol. After being 28-0 down, Harlequins fought back to draw and then win in extra time 43-36. You can watch the highlights of this thrilling game here. The team were then able to maintain the tempo and pace the following weekend, to beat Exeter in the final.
The Big Game
The Quins purpose is also brought to life dramatically through the staging of annual Big Game, that I posted on here. Once a year just after Xmas the club take over Twickenham stadium to host one of their matches. The club manage to sell 70,000+ tickets, versus a regular attendance of 14,500. There are fireworks, pop groups, DJs and light shows. This is all part of entertaining and inspiring the Quins way. It is also an effective way of driving reach to recruit new supporters. This year the club has gone a step further in delivering the purpose by adding a second match at Twickenham, called The Big Summer Kickoff.
Season Ticket Marketing
The purpose has also been used to inspire and guide marketing, in particular the launch of the 2022/23 season ticket campaign. One advantage of emphasising the entertainment aspect of the Quins Way, is that this is somehow easier to plan and prepare for. The club can’t guarantee to always win. But it can commit to a style and strategy of playing on the pitch. The campaign has been so effective, on the back of the team’s continued delivery of entertaining and winning rugby, that there is now a waiting list for new season ticket applications.
In conclusion, the Harlequins story shows the power of defining and delivering a clear purpose to inspire performance. Fingers crossed it pays off with a playoff place for the second year in a row. And, who knows, maybe a shot at retaining the Premiership champion’s crown!