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Marketing and Comms
How England Took Its First Rugby World Cup:
A Lesson in Marketing Sustainability

On a balmy Sydney night in November 2003, a squad of 31 English rugby players fulfilled their dreams. They won England's first rugby World Cup, led by a brilliant coach, ex IT-leasing company founder, Clive Woodward. Their journey under his leadership can teach us a lot about where we've gone wrong marketing sustainability.

Sir Clive's genius was turning his team’s hunger to win into focused, well-practised action. These big blokes rolling around in the mud can teach marketers a thing or two about sustainability. As England’s team were hungry to be the best, so it seems everyone in the world wants to live better, more sustainable lives. From Nielsen’s Global Survey on CSR to Havas’ Global Meaningful Brands study, they’re all proving the point again and again. Brands have responded, but it’s not taken off. Conventional wisdom says the problem is people not putting their money where their mouth is and buying our more sustainable offerings. This is called the value-action gap.

This problem is always framed to place responsibility on the consumer — ‘people said they’d buy it, but when we got it on shelf, no one did.’ This framing is as convenient as it is conventional, because it gives brands an excuse. The blame for failure quickly falls on the punter, and the business doesn’t need to try again.

It’s clearly rubbish, though. A survey response is not a contract. The problem doesn’t lie with the punter, it lies with the brands. They have put their offerings out there. The market has judged and rejected them because they just aren’t good enough.

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When brands get sustainability right, it sells like ice-cold beer at carnival. Sales of bicycles have doubled in the last decade. Tesla’s already racked up an estimated 20,000 pre-orders for their Model X, an all-electric car that won’t go on sale until Spring 2015. Apple’s latest software update for billions of iPhones includes a health app that tracks, aggregates and gives you data to improve your health. They haven’t done that out of the goodness of their heart. Nudie Jeans have built a multimillion-Kronor business that ritualises sustainable behaviours with such success that fashionista fan sites have sprung up. And yes, fair trade sales are still growing, now £4.4bn, up 15 percent on last year.

For Sir Clive, it was a winner-takes-all game. For us, it’s a bounty we can all share in. Sir Clive shows us that harnessing desire is all about the details. In 2003, England didn’t have the greatest individual players in the world. The team had a decent track record, but had only ever made it to one other World Cup final.

Woodward ruthlessly dissected the game. He broke it down into individual components, worked out how to be the best in each, then built it all back up again — everything from interpretation of the rules to player psychology and peripheral-vision training. Back in 2003 they even had 21-stone rugby players doing yoga — anything that gave them an edge, no matter how small.

England won because they became the best team in the world through design and hard work. Unlike Woodward, most brands haven’t really dissected their challenge and built a strong strategy. They haven’t really understood the value people are looking for. It’s certainly not pure altruism, or saving the planet (which, by the way, doesn’t need to be saved — it’ll be fine without us) — which only interests a few thousand people.

The mistake lies in the basics of marketing, in really understanding the value on offer. The theory, from people such as Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen, is that there are three types of value people want:

  • Most obvious is functional value — the value created from using the product or service, like staying dry in the rain thanks to your Patagonia waterproof, or the taste from your fair trade tea.
  • Secondly, emotional value is the feeling or the reinforcing of your values you get from using the product or service. Levi’s Water<Less jeans, made with low-water technology, were marketed in a way that spoke to the values of their customers, who see themselves as ‘someone whose changing the world’. They sold 1.5 million pairs in the year they were launched, 29 million the year after.
  • Finally, there’s social value — the feeling you get from communicating who you are and what you stand for to the world around you. Research into Prius drivers back in 2007 showed that over 50 percent bought one because it ‘makes a statement about me.’ Tesla took this strategy to another level by making electric vehicles high status with their Roadster, then they built a more affordable car, the Model S. Next they’re releasing the even more affordable Model X. At every step they are making their brand — and by extension, electric vehicles — status symbols.

Two of these three values are deeply intangible, concerning our sense of identity, the values we hold, the way we see ourselves and how we want to be seen by others. These are the kinds of insights needed to design ways to engage people on sustainability. They have very little to do with the concepts of sustainability, which, forgivably but unfortunately, is where most organisations start from. Instead, they are human-centric, with a respect for people, their hopes and fears, their pressures and stresses. For some reason the idea of ‘doing good’ stuns most marketers into forgetting their craft.

To get serious headway on making sustainability part of our everyday lives, profitably, we need to take a cue from Sir Clive and abandon the traditional strategy. Rather, we need to focus on selling the various types of value we’re creating in people’s lives, in the context of sustainability — not the other way round.


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