It was the best game ever… but has English cricket been breaking the golden rules of marketing and branding?

12/07/2019 By James Myring

July 2019

Everyone is now talking about cricket...

England are World Champions, they play exciting, innovative cricket and their team is packed full of talented and charismatic players.  They have just played in, and won, the 'best game ever'.  The ‘product’ (to use business terminology), is in robust good health.

England’s route to the finals was not without hiccups, but arguably, that made it only more tense and exciting…

…to cricket fans – until almost the climax of the final, unless you were speaking to a long standing cricket fan you may have struggled to have realised that the tournament is actually on.

The scenes during and after the final were intensely dramatic - but they were concentrated into a few short hours.  The duration of the euphoria was quite different to the football World Cup last summer when for a few gloriously sunny weeks, the country caught football fever.  “It’s coming home” was played endlessly.  People who largely ignored football most of the year were now discussing whether Sterling or Rashford should partner Kane up front for the next match.   The obsession was real.  It was hard to quantify but you could feel it, taste it.

Of course, football is considered a (much) bigger sport than cricket in England, but as we saw on the 14th July at Lords, cricket is still also capable of capturing the imagination of the country.  In 2005, England regained the Ashes and generated mass excitement, open top bus trips and drunken visits to 10 Downing Street.  Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff became a household name and a national hero.

There are millions of people who love to see the country doing well in the sporting arena, they may not follow the sport week-in week-out, but when there is British/English success (especially on home soil) in football, rugby, cricket or the Olympics (just remember 2012!) everyone gets involved.

Converting enthusiasm to commitment

Many of those fans, of course, are only temporary, they may drift off and only really engage a decade (or generation!) later when the national team again does well.  However, some do stay with the sport and convert into committed fans.  My son is a prime example.  He finally got the football bug in 2018 thanks to the World Cup in Russia. Without it, I’m not sure he would be as interested in the game.

For cricket, I’m still waiting, but I am hoping that after an evening watching the climax of the cricket final in the bar of Edmonton Sports and Social Club (after an afternoon at a children’s football tournament) that something may have changed for him.

We shall see, parental prodding is only likely to go so far.  He really got into football last summer because literally everyone at school was talking about the football World Cup - peers are, of course far more influential than parents. Although, the two are related… mass euphoria requires mass exposure.

The cricket World Cup, hosted in England, with a no.1 ranked England team was a fantastic, once in a generation opportunity for the game of cricket to broaden its appeal and engage with casual fans and the next generation.  However, my children say that before the ‘best game ever’ there was basically zero chat about it in their school playground.

Is this because English cricket has been breaking some established and well researched rules of marketing and branding?

Marketing - a 60:40 game  

The authors of the rules in question are Byron Sharp, Les Binet & Peter Field who have written eloquently and convincingly on the importance of focusing at least as much (60:40 ratio) on long term brand health (60% focus) as short term sales (40% focus).  Subsequently, it becomes clear that there is a particular need to market to a broad, mass audience in order to attract new customers, and keep a brand strong in the long term.

As mentioned the ‘product’ looks healthy – there are now three established formats of the game – tests, 50 over games and of course Twenty20.   What is more, the England team is strong and have been succeeding on the pitch by adopting a dynamic fast scoring approach to the game.

However, have they been failing with marketing and branding of the game by sticking with an outdated short-term revenue maximisation model, focused on the existing still substantial (albeit perhaps narrowing) fan base?   Has the importance of keeping the game in the nationwide mass market been neglected?

Even on the pitch, despite the world cup triumph, there are some signs that the game may be suffering from a narrowing talent pool.  It is now seemingly quite rare that an England cricketer is not at least one of:  a public schoolboy, of South Asian background, had a father who was a professional cricketer, or that they learnt the game in a different country (often South Africa/ Zimbabwe).  There is nothing wrong with being particularly strong amongst some groups in the population, but the vast majority of boys in England or Wales fit into none of these categories.

The women’s football World Cup is an example of a sport that (currently) has only a fraction of the commercial pull of the men’s cricket (let alone football) World Cup.  Nevertheless, the tournament has been cleverly marketed and the importance of mass marketing, and engaging casual and new fans clearly understood.  Time will tell, but it looks very possible that 2019 Women’s World Cup will prove to be a turning point for women’s football in this country.

Short term revenue maximisation remains vitally important for all sports, but it should not be the only focus.  It can be argued that by breaking the rules of marketing and branding, cricket runs a real risk (despite the dramatic final) of moving from a mainstream, national sport and becoming a niche sport- enjoyed by its aficionados, but little understood, let alone watched or played by the majority of the population.

Cricket is a game where the rules are sacrosanct and taken seriously – those who break them (Smith & Warner) have faced lengthy bans.  For the long term health of the game, those running the sport may need to understand that the rules of marketing and branding could be just as important as the rules of cricket.

To find out more about our Media and Branding research, or to talk cricket get in touch with James.