Revolutionary Measures

Taking a stand – and the risks to brand reputation

Brands today face significant challenges when it comes to marketing themselves. Competition is growing, particularly from smaller, nimbler and often cooler players. We also live in an increasingly polarised world, where consumers demand that the brands they engage with stand for something. That’s relatively easy for quirky startups – the trouble for established multinationals is that ‘something’ varies radically between different groups and cuts across their existing customer demographics.

The current debate over Nike’s latest marketing campaign demonstrates this perfectly. It has recruited American footballer Colin Kaepernick to narrate its new ad, which features athletes from a range of backgrounds who have overcome adversity to achieve success. The slogan, “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”, sums up Kaepernick’s role as leader of the movement to kneel during the US national anthem to protest against police violence.

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Photo by Rafael on Pexels.com

Burning rubber
Predictably, the campaign has drawn ire from both sides. Photos and videos of people burning their Nike shoes and clothes went viral on social media, and the Nike stock price initially dropped. Donald Trump complained on Twitter. The body responsible for buying uniforms for the Mississippi police force announced that it would now longer purchase Nike products. At the same time, commentators have complained that Nike is simply hijacking a key issue to essentially sell more trainers. And given their previous poor record on issues such as ethical sourcing, child labour and more recently complaints of a culture of sexual harassment, people may well have a point.

Nevertheless, Nike clearly feels that its core buyers are going to respond positively to its position. In a similar vein, the CEO of Levi’s announced a partnership with gun violence prevention groups, causing the National Rifle Association to complain about “corporate virtue-signalling.” On this side of the Atlantic, Lush had to drop a campaign focused on undercover police who infiltrated activist groups to spy on their members.

So how can brands make sure that taking a stand doesn’t alienate the people they want to appeal to? Essentially it comes down to answering four key questions:

1.Does it fit with your brand values?
One of the reasons Lush received so many complaints was that its campaign didn’t fit with its brand values. Yes, it was seen as alternative and studenty, but being seen to attack the police was a step too far. Companies need to live their brand values – but not over-extend them in pursuit of cheap headlines, as it will damage their reputation.

2. Does it fit with your target audience?
For Nike, its core audience is overwhelming young, urban and involved. Therefore, while it might lose some sales (will Donald Trump switch to Yeezys?), they are clearly confident that the positive impact outweighs the negative. In the same way, UK stationery chain Paperchase pulled promotions from the Daily Mail after its customers complained about the difference between the paper’s editorial stance and their own views. So start with demographics and listening to your customers – after all, there’s a world of social media to help you hear their voice.

3. Are you seen as genuine?
For me, this is where Nike falls down, though it isn’t as bad as Pepsi’s infamous Kendall Jenner advert. I simply can’t see them as genuinely believing in the issues raised – and their own record on worker’s rights undermines their case for promoting fairness. Obviously this is an issue for any major corporation as most have skeletons in their closet of some sort. However, in contrast, Levi’s campaign on gun control looks much more genuine as their CEO is an ex-US army captain who has spoken out on the issue before.

4. Is it cohesive?
If you take a stand, it has to run across your business. You can’t complain about police brutality and then treat your own employees poorly, for example. That’s one of the reasons that tech giants such as Facebook and Amazon are currently in trouble. They talk about an innovative future based on technology and openness, and then create labyrinthine corporate structures to minimise the tax they pay and (in the case of Amazon) face accusations of sweatshop conditions for their warehouse staff. In today’s world failing to live your brand will be quickly discovered and publicised.

We’re in a position where more and more brands are being forced to make a choice – Trump or Democrat, Leave or Remain

? To do this successfully is a balancing act – but starting from genuine brand values built on trust with your audience is a key starting point.

 

September 19, 2018 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sharapova, drugs and public relations

Maria Sharapova hitting backhand, Fed Cup matc...

Thanks to her celebrity and high profile, Maria Sharapova’s positive drugs test resonates far beyond tennis. As the world’s highest paid sportswomen she has built a strong, lucrative brand that is now less about her success at tennis, but more about her image and what it stands for. In turn, this has attracted multi-million pound endorsements from blue chip sponsors. Like Tiger Woods with golf, she was arguably bigger than women’s tennis, despite not being world number one. She was even an ambassador for the United Nations.

So, when she tested positive for meldonium, the PR fallout didn’t just focus on her, but her sponsors, supporters and the attitude of the tennis authorities as well. As has been pointed out already her first PR response was textbook crisis management. She took control of the story, announced it herself to the world’s media, dressed soberly in a deliberately low key press conference. She admitted she’d made a mistake, which she positioned as an honest failure to read warnings that meldonium was to join the WADA banned list from 1 January 2016, and appealed for leniency.

However, since then the story has slipped out of her control, with two questions that remain unanswered:

1.Where’s her support team?
Why did no-one in her entourage, including her doctor, see that meldonium was being banned and advise her not to take it? It was on the WADA watch list for a year before the ban came into effect. Sharapova has to take responsibility for what is in her body, but as a high profile athlete she should have advisers and coaches helping her keep up with the WADA banned list.

2.Why was she using it?
Meldonium was created to help those with heart problems and diabetes, but is proven to help with athletic endurance. It is freely available online and in Eastern Europe – indeed it sold over the counter in Russia. Since 1st January there have been 100 positive tests by athletes for the drug, from across a wide variety of sports. Clearly, all of those that have used it didn’t have the health issues it was originally prescribed for – otherwise it is unlikely they’d be international athletes. However, while using meldonium for a purpose that it was not intended for may have been ethically a grey area, up until this year it was legal. Sharapova’s argument that she was prescribed it, by her family doctor, after tests showed abnormal ECG readings and some diabetes indicators is definitely open to question. However the fact remains that WADA’s code provides the line in the sand – you can take anything that may improve performance provided it is not on the banned list. Pretty much any substance is performance-enhancing – otherwise you will have to ban water or energy gels from athletic competition. As John McEnroe said, if meldonium had been around legally while he was playing he would have taken it – though he did go on to doubt Sharapova’s story that she was unaware of the rule change.

As a PR person what’s particularly interesting to me is the aftermath of the announcement and how sponsors and people from the world of tennis reacted:

  • Some, like Nike, have been quick to act, either ending or suspending their relationship with Sharapova. Given Nike’s previous bad experiences with the likes of Lance Armstrong, this is not a surprise.
  • Others, such as Women’s Tennis Association president Steve Simon and ex-champion Martina Navratilova see it as an honest mistake, and therefore something that should be treated accordingly.
  • At the other end of the spectrum Sharapova’s racquet manufacturer Head has been much more bullish, not only re-affirming its relationship with her, but questioning whether meldonium should be on WADA’s banned list at all. It has been joined by the Russian sports minister in this stance, hardly a good association for Sharapova or tennis generally, given the proven doping problems in Russian sport.

What has particularly impressed me are the people who have been prepared to speak out and ask more questions. For example, Andy Murray has said that it is ethically wrong to take a drug purely to boost performance, and that Sharapova deserves a ban for failing the drugs test. He also criticised the stance of Head (also one of his own sponsors), calling its stance and decision to extend Sharapova’s contract ‘strange’.

The PR impact of the Sharapova drugs test, along with recent revelations about match-fixing in tennis, threaten the entire image of the sport. What is needed from the authorities is strong action that sends out a message that cheating, whether wilful or not, will not be tolerated. It is time to be more like Andy Murray, and less like Head, if they want to win back the trust of the public and sponsors.

March 16, 2016 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The first social media World Cup?

With the World Cup almost upon us, we’re in the midst of a slew of big budget ad campaigns, coupled with unrestrained hype about the potential prospects of England making it further than the group stages. And of course we have the obligatory ‘will the stadia be ready?’ and ‘FIFA is corrupt’ stories on the front page of most newspapers.

English: FIFA World Cup Trophy Italiano: Trofe...

With its global audience, the World Cup has always been a magnet for brands, something that has swelled FIFA’s coffers. Obviously you don’t need to be an official sponsor to jump on the bandwagon (provided you are careful you don’t infringe copyright). For example, bookmaker Paddy Power has already come up with a (for them) remarkably restrained campaign, commissioning Stephen Hawking to look at the factors necessary for England to win the tournament. Just avoid penalties – as the renowned scientist pointed out when it came to shoot-outs “England couldn’t hit a cow’s arse with a banjo.”

This should be the first real social media World Cup, with traditional broadcasting sharing the stage with the likes of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. As the marketing focus has shifted online, and more towards real-time activities, it does mean the playing field has levelled. It doesn’t quite let Accrington Stanley take on Brazil, but it offers a better opportunity for non-sponsors to get involved and engage with fans. Good, creative, well-executed campaigns don’t necessarily require enormous budgets, but do need brands to understand social media influencers and reach the right people if they are going to succeed.

Looking at social media, YouTube has been the early front runner, as brands increasingly put their video adverts on the site, either in addition to big budget TV slots or as an alternative for smaller brands. Castrol’s Footkhana ad, featuring Brazilian footballer Neymar and rally driver Ken Block has already had over 15 million views on YouTube, a figure that is bound to increase as the tournament nears. Nike’s ad, featuring Cristiano Ronaldo, was seen online by 78 million people in four days – before it even went on TV.

When we get to the matches themselves, expect a flurry of activity as brands try and embed themselves into second screen conversations. Facebook estimates that 500m of its 1.28 billion users are football fans, while the 2012 Champion’s League final generated 16.5 million total tweets. Social media has already become a major part of big sporting events – and the World Cup will demonstrate this. It gives non-sponsors a chance to muscle in on the action, but is going to require a combination of good planning, quick reactions and genuinely engaging content if they are going to actually reach the right audience. Competition will be fierce – as well as brands, pundits, media organisations and the general public will all be looking to have their say, so expect Twitter records to be broken.

In essence there are three competitions going on simultaneously – on the pitch, between brands and also between the social media networks as they look to monetise their members and wrest advertising and marketing budgets from traditional channels. All of these promise to be fascinating contests – however far England actually get.

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June 4, 2014 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment