What aspiring challengers can learn from All Blacks

A strong culture

From time to time, we at eatbigfish are asked “Can you immediately tell if an organisation is going to embrace 'challenger thinking' successfully?” From our experience, it's always a matter of culture. Ultimately, people build challenger brands, not processes.

I was reminded of that whilst reading sports psychology expert Keith Begley's blog post about the recent World Cup successes of the All Blacks, New Zealand’s rugby union team. Whilst dazzling the world with stunning rugby and cementing themselves into the folklore of the fervently reverential supporters back home, the team was also able to win the admiration of fans across the globe.

Despite there being some fantastic on-field stories (the feisty underdogs from Japan and the painful humbling of the English) the enduring image of this World Cup will likely be Sonny Bill Williams coming to the rescue and handing his winner’s medal over to an over enthusiastic, but well meaning teenager who found himself in trouble. Both on and off the field, New Zealand conducted themselves with style and dignity. None of this was by accident, but little of it was planned. It was all second nature to an organisation whose culture is at the heart of everything they do.

The similarities between the All Blacks’ culture and the cultures of successful challenger brands are fascinating. After several years of playing well, but not winning, the team realised that continuing to do the same things over and over again was leading to the same results. Change was needed. To achieve their lofty ambitions of dominating world rugby would require a new approach, new training methods and an overcommitment to a style of play, but foremost, the team realised it would all start with culture.

Horizontal contracts

In the 'Pirate Inside', Adam Morgan writes about the importance to challenger brands of “Binding groups together with a different type of contract” … a contract not about terms and conditions of employment (holiday allowances, the company’s parking policy etc) but about a shared vision and commitment to each other. A horizontal contract amongst equals.

In his post, Keith talks about how the team, at all levels, came together in a 3-day workshop (we're big fans of those at eatbigfish) not only to discuss what their new winning culture would be, but to write it down, to codify it, so that every present or future player and staff member would understand what it required to be an All Black. Those cultural principles as laid out in Keith's post are exactly the type of behaviour we see from successful challenger brands, and there are parallels that all businesses and organisations can learn from.

The All Blacks principles:


  • Leave the shirt in a better state than you found it - it’s not about you, or about today, it’s about the legacy.
  • Sweep the shed - no one is too big for the tough jobs. The players take it in turns clean the training rooms after every match. No one looks after the All Blacks, the All Blacks look after themselves.
  • The “No d—ckhead” policy - Ego to be left at the door. Fancy Dans and show ponies will be found out and kicked out. The shirt comes first.
  • Whare - a Maori style “meeting house” to be held after each match, lead by an “off-field” captain (often an injured player) to debrief what went well and what went badly in that match. Everyone has a voice from seasoned pro, to the unused rookie. Improvement is everyone’s responsibility. Nothing is left to chance.


The mantra “Better people make better All Blacks” has become a simple yet brilliant encapsulation of this culture. These principles, committed to paper by a group of passionate believers, have allowed the All Blacks to return to the forefront of world sport.

There was of course hard work, tough decisions and late nights that will no doubt be pointed to as the pillars of success. But the New Zealanders will know that their culture was the foundation that allowed them to reach new heights. It was this culture, stuck too with fanatic obsession, that allowed a group of people to achieve things that they’d only dreamed of.

There are other fantastic examples of businesses and organisations codifying their working culture to achieve success, from AVIS & DDB’s 1960’s “We try harder” contract, to Lexus’ covenant for success in the luxury car market, but we’d like to know about yours. What are your own business’ codified cultural practices? How do they allow you to compete in a tough market? Do you have a “No d---head policy”?