Aesop Storytelling Series - Episode 5: How to make an All Black cry

The marketing sector can be a complicated place as new marketing tools and techniques are launched, almost on a weekly basis. Powered by The Drum Network, this regular column invites The Drum Network's members to demystify the marketing trade and offer expert insight and opinion on what is happening in the marketing industry today that can help your business tomorrow.

The All Blacks perform the traditional 'haka' war dance.

The All Blacks are the most formidable team in the history of sport. They hold the longest-ever winning streak in rugby and have been number one in the world for twice as long as all other teams combined.

You’d imagine much of this is down to years of training and hard graft. And to a unique national talent for the game and the coaching institutions to support it. But that’s not the whole story. As the best-selling book ‘Legacy – What the All Blacks can teach us about the business of life’ reveals, some of their success can be attributed to something not normally associated with sport – storytelling.

The story begins back in 2004. The All Blacks had just lost to South Africa 40-26, finishing last in the Tri-Nations tournament. Worse still, on the evening of the defeat, a ‘court session’ – an alcohol-fuelled mock trial – had left some famous faces lying comatose in hallways, bushes, and gutters. Defeat had been compounded by shame. They realised something needed to change for the team to regain its mojo and reclaim its hard-earned reputation for invincibility.

The leadership team that set about transforming the All Blacks was a mix of old-school graft and new-school psychology. One had been raised in orphanages, others were ex-farmhands, a few were first-class rugby players. Together, they knew the meaning of hard knocks and hard yards. But they also knew that it would take a change in the softer aspects of the team’s culture to deliver the results they desired.

They set about defining a new vision: ‘to play the best rugby that has ever been played and be the most dominant team in rugby world history’. And a new purpose: ‘to inspire and unite New Zealand’. These ambitions were underpinned by new values: humility, excellence, and respect. So far, so good. But they knew that to turn this vision into action, they needed something more engaging than mere statements of intent.

They turned to the nation’s Maori culture for inspiration. They drew upon Maori warrior stories and used them to craft a new narrative of winning for team and country. A story that fired the imagination, demanded commitment, and forged a shared identity.

But for the story to be a success, it had to live and breathe in the life of the team. For the next stage of their cultural transformation, they needed to make the story real. They spent time crafting the team’s ‘folklore’, manifestations of the story the team could live and abide by every day. Mantras like ‘leave the jersey in a better place’ spoke of the legacy they were to leave behind. Customs like ‘sweeping the sheds’ (leaving dressing rooms spotless) encouraged humility and discipline. And rituals like the haka, the famous pre-match spectacle, were revived.

One particular ceremony stands out: each aspiring All Black is given a book with pictures of all the team’s previous shirts and a few blank pages at the end. These pages are for players to write their own story and commit to paper what they are prepared to sacrifice for the team. The sacrifice is then proclaimed before all the other players – a rite of self-revelation that turns hulks of men into sobbing boys.

This new story and its ‘folklore’ instilled the self-belief required to win again. A change of culture led to a change in fortunes. They went on to win the World Cup in 2011 and again in 2015. They’ve been ranked number one ever since.

It’s an interesting story. But what the hell has it got to do with marketing?

Even though we are increasingly obsessed with data and metrics, marketing and brands are among the most human aspects of business. Yes, on one level, a brand represents a value exchange but on a deeper level, a brand acts like the soul of a business, embodying its purpose and character. They are articles of faith as much as of commercial exchange. We buy into them as much as we buy from them.

For a brand to be believed in by consumers and customers, it must first be believed in by its people. Storytelling is a way to build that faith. Without faith in the purpose of a brand or business, employees become demotivated and it shows in interactions with customers and consumers.

Storytelling in marketing is more associated with external communications – all the other articles in this series deal with outward-facing aspects of brand storytelling. But as the All Black anecdote shows, it’s equally powerful applied internally to give an organisation a sense of identity and purpose. Ultimately, a strong organisational and clear brand narrative helps employees believe in the brand they work for. The ‘core narrative’ (and associated stories) help build a culture, a company ‘folklore’, in which employees can thrive and best represent the brand.

A good example of this is Ovo Energy. The company's core narrative is ‘People first, profits follow’, which sums up their philosophy of business. Their folklore includes a tale about the kitchen table around which the company was founded and where the team met every morning in a barn in Devon, planning ‘a better way’. Years later, it’s a daily reminder that no matter how big the company gets, it is committed to treating customers like they’re sat at the table with them. It’s also the name of their intranet and only one manifestation amongst many of a core narrative that has made Ovo the UK’s Energy Supplier of the Year three years running.

Belief in a brand is increasingly a source of competitive advantage; just as belief in the team’s ethos were a source of incredible competitive advantage for the All Blacks. As their record shows, using storytelling to work on ‘the soft stuff’ delivered hard results – numbers that tell a story of their own.

Ed Woodcock is director of narrative at storytelling agency Aesop

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