The Branding of Kaizer Chiefs

Post by Marc Fletcher

On March 9th, the latest edition of the biggest club game in South Africa gets underway. The Soweto Derby between Orlando Pirates and Kaizer Chiefs always stokes a great rivalry between fans of the Buccaneers (Pirates) and the Amakhosi (Zulu for Chiefs). While Pirates were formed in 1937, Chiefs are in their relative infancy, emerging from a split with Pirates in 1970. Despite their short existence, Chiefs are the largest supported soccer club in the country. Unfortunately, the history of this fixture has been marred by two stadium disasters. In 1991, 42 people were killed at Orkney Stadium, while in 2001 the Ellis Park Stadium disaster saw 43 fans die.

But back to the game. As the game gets closer, so will the marketing increase. Take this commercial for mobile phone operator, Vodacom, tapping into Kaizer Chiefs’ brand:

The Vodacom commercial taps into the vibrant atmosphere that accompanies derby day. The chant of “Ayeye, liyez’ iKhosi” warns Pirates supporters to “beware, Chiefs are coming”. The eclectic range of makarapas, robes and costumes mirror the exciting sights of South Africa soccer supporting. Unlike many derby fixtures in Europe and South America, the Soweto Derby is a far less hostile atmosphere, with the focus of supporters on lifting their team through singing, dancing and the infamous vuvuzela.

Yet, the advert gives a very stylised and commercialised view of the derby. Set in Soweto, it reasserts Chiefs’ identity as a township club. While they originated from Phefeni in Soweto, in reality, Chiefs are no longer a township side but a national brand. The club is a commerical juggernaut offering a vast array of official merchandise to its millions of fans across the country. Replica shirts and training kit are prohibitively expensive, especially as the core demographic of SA soccer supporters are black, working class fans. This creates a tension between those who can afford authentic apparel and those who can’t; the authenticity of supporters becomes linked to the consumption of official merchandise. It is no longer merely a local derby game but one of national significance in which many supporters of both side avidly consume what the club sells. As one Chiefs fan said to me recently, “they know that we’ll buy it”. A pretty gloomy outlook for the relationship between fans and club.

And what on earth is a little boy doing running around Soweto with a smartphone?

5 thoughts on “The Branding of Kaizer Chiefs

  1. I can’t imagine that strong branding will create a schism between the supporters in different social groups. The main issue is for the sport in the nation as a whole. In Brazil many people cannot afford the hefty prices on replica kits and official merchandise either, yet the clubs’ following is still as strong and authentic as always. The two clubs favored by the working class in Rio and São Paulo respectively, Flamengo and Corinthians, have national followings, with followers coming from all walks of life. Corinthians, the current world champions, know how to brand themselves a lot better than Flamengo do — although the Rio club has just signed a lucrative contract with adidas– but neither have alienated their supporters from the city outskirts or the favelas. The Chiefs and the Pirates fans need not be concerned: the other clubs do, as a strong financial backing can make a club dwarf the others in their leagues, which certainly isn’t good for competition and the health of football in the nation as a whole.

    However, I can see a point if you’re talking about alienating the people from the stadium culture and the game itself: raising ticket prices and “sanitizing” policies, so common in the game nowadays, can effectively stop the supporters from taking it to the stadium, relegating most of the population to watch the game on the TV — if they are able to watch it at all, as only the larger clubs are seen as worthy of airtime by the media. This too happens in Brazil, where high ticket prices and prohibitive match schedules ensure empty stadiums for most of the matches in the national tournament. The 10 pm starting time for most matches, ideal for the TV broadcaster, which has a strong grip at the sport, effectively stop the supporters from taking public transport to watch the game, and doesn’t help one bit those who will have to wake up early for work in the next day. How democratic is a game that not everyone is able to watch at all?

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