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AFL marketer Julian Dunne on the battle to overhaul sport’s branding

The AFL’s head of marketing has spoken of the sport’s challenges in shifting its advertising away from “great music and Chris Hemsworth” to something more reflective of the “modern Australian”. 

Despite internal support, Julian Dunne said he faced some wider opposition around the recent ‘Don’t Believe in Never’ campaign – which featured stories from a Muslim woman and a former refugee – from those who feared the new messaging could alienate the sport’s established fanbase. 

Dunne: ‘We still have a big job to do to make sure the brand is relevant for different, diverse audiences that haven’t grown up with the game’

Speaking during Mumbrella Sports Marketing Summit, Dunne said there was a “darkness” to the Clemenger BBDO-made campaign, but that it was a necessary step towards growing the AFL fanbase over the long term.

“The feedback to me was ‘Why are we doing this? Why can’t we just show the positives of the footy season because there’s a darkness about that campaign as well and particularly the teaser piece with the ‘Never’ outdoor campaign.

AFL’s ‘Never’ outdoor campaign: ‘There was risk involved’

There was risk involved, but it’s probably riskier for us long-term if we are just talking to the same people. We’re not going to grow the game. It wasn’t until we launched the campaign and we got the feedback through social media and through our fanbase and new audiences connecting with the game that internally the campaign was accepted.

“There was a bit of a battle because there were some who said: ‘Let’s just start the season like we normally do: get a great music track, get Chris Hemsworth and talk about how great the last season was. But I think that will keep our traditional fans happy, but it will not grow the game long-term.”

Released in March this year, the “human interest” campaign featured three videos showcasing different people’s experiences of the AFL. One was a young Muslim woman named Dema, whose passion for playing AFL led to her conservative father also embracing them game.

Another featured Aliir Aliir, a Sudanese man born in a refugee camp, and how he learned to communicate through sport when he moved to Australia.

The last, presented as a 30-minute documentary, featured the defeated Richmond coach, Damien Hardwick, who spoke of overcoming his multiple losses and finding his love of coaching again.

Speaking about why the rebrand was necessary, Dunne claimed the sport’s fanbase had become “disconnected” following 2015’s Essendon drug scandal, plus a number of match fixture issues, including the unpopular decision to have Monday night games.

“It wasn’t just a marketing strategy, it was a whole brand and business-led strategy,” Dunne said.

However, when asked by Mumbrella whether AFL needed the image revamp due to its perception as sport for largely white, Australian-born men, Dunne added: “We’ve always made a very conscious effort to integrate diversity into our campaigns and make sure that the look of our campaigns reflects a modern day Australia.

“You need to do more than integrate that into your campaigns: you have to make sure you stand for something and the launch of AFLW, which took us 150 years, was a great step in the right direction but I think we still have a big job to do to make sure the brand is relevant for different, diverse audiences that haven’t grown up with the game.

“That’s a long-term strategy; it’s not something you can fix overnight. And showing images of footballers taking marks doesn’t mean anything to that group.”

In another attempt at showing its inclusive credentials, AFL also recently changed its logo to show its support gay marriage in Australia,– a move that led to its HQ receiving bomb threats, Dunne noted.

Asked whether LBGT rights was the next step for the ‘Don’t Believe in Never’ campaign, he added: “We haven’t had a gay AFL men’s player come out, but we took a strong position on gay marriage. We changed our logo for the first time. That was very controversial.

“I won’t say it was a difficult decision, but I think it was a brave decision from our executives and our commission. We had parts of our traditional fanbase who weren’t happy about that: we had bomb threats; we had to clear out our building. The office was defaced. There was a whole lot of negative things that happened around that. But [we were passionate about it and knew it] was the right thing to do.

“Interestingly we got a lot of positive feedback from our non-traditional fanbase. We have a Pride Game going, so we are focussed on it, but we could always be doing more.”

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