So what was the lasting impression amongst viewers of Sri Lanka's hosting of the ICC World T20 - the first global cricket tournament to take place solely in that country in a decade? That South Africa is not the only host nation capable of 'choking'? That West Indies cricket is about to enjoy a revival? No, it was that the tournament's cheerleaders were unprofessional and a "disgraceful eyesore".
While the latter description is perhaps a tad harsh, you only need to review a few global news sites and social media platforms to see the damage that the cheerleaders' lack of rhythm did to the overall perception of a tournament that was, in all other facets, a sporting success (aside from the outbreak of a nasty gastro virus affecting players and officials alike).
From a brand Sri-Lanka perspective, however, the backlash has been severe. Nishantha Ranatunga, secretary of Sri Lanka Cricket, told international reporters that fans had provided "negative feedback" after lacklustre displays by the tournament cheerleaders. The UK's Daily Mirror, however, went as far to say that the "sorry performance of the so-called cheerleaders showcased Sri-Lanka in a poor light to the world."
The devil is in the detail
So what can we learn from 'Cheerleadergate'? The first is failing to consider the negative impact that just one poorly executed element of an event or campaign can have on your brand image.
The cheerleaders' failure to 'Step Up', coupled with their cheap and poor-fitting outfits, also did advertisers a disservice, as they were essentially the 'face' of the tournament's various sponsored brands that adorned their outfits.
More and more, effective PR campaigns are utilising brand ambassadors and vehicles such as industrial theatre and guerrilla stunts to communicate campaign messages. If conceptualised correctly they can offer an alternative channel to reaching and influencing audiences, as well as generating positive brand affinity.
In South Africa, a successful example is the DHL Stormers' cheerleaders, who have been used across myriad marketing activations, beyond their performances on game day. They are a well choreographed, professional group that has added positive brand affinity to both DHL and the rugby union.
When it comes to successful execution of events, sponsorships or campaigns, the devil really is in the detail. An integrated 360 degree approach needs to be taken - down to the smallest detail (or outfit size).
A pretty lame excuse
The second key learning is the response (or lack thereof) by the tournament organisers once all of the negative criticism - via traditional press and social media channels - began to appear. Their official excuse for the debacle was that the contract for providing cheerleaders had been awarded to a foreign company which sub-contracted the work to a Sri Lankan firm. Spokespeople also (tactfully) alluded to the fact that they apparently didn't 'budget' for pretty girls.
However, fans weren't buying this and it's always a cop-out to blame a third party.
Even if they didn't go the local route to source talent, surely the issue could have been easily avoided by a pre-tournament review of the dancers and their routines by local organisers - either via mock-rehearsals, or at the very least a video of their previous 'work'?
There was time to fix it
More crucially, organisers still had the luxury of time to rectify the damage, as the outcry started pretty much as soon as the first six was hit in a tournament spanning almost three weeks! A possible (budget-friendly) solution would have been to involve attendees on match day - an SOS casting call to previously untapped talent in the crowd perhaps? Or involve the hugely active social media community by inviting them to post images or videos of their friends, girlfriends, (wives?) etc. as potential candidates - or even challenging the existing cheerleaders to dance-offs?
All of these solutions would surely have created some positive brand affinity, generated excitement or at the very least shown that steps were being taken to acknowledge sports fans' complaints of being visually assaulted.
Tournament organisers must be eternally grateful for eventual winners, the West Indies team, showing the world - and on-looking cheerleaders - true rhythm (and a bit of Gangnam Style) during their march to the title and ultimate victory celebrations.
Gavin Etheridge is Director of Epic Communications, which is based in Cape Town and is reputed to be South Africa's largest independent public relations and strategic communications agency. Visit www.epiccommunications.co.za for more information.
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