Guinness' condemnation of the New York St Patrick's Day parade organisers and their homophobic behaviour was about staying true to its brand values - which is worth more than the sponsorship itself, writes John Atmore, planning director at Arc.
Over recent years, brands have moved from simply talking about product benefits and emotional benefits. It’s become increasingly important for brands to have an understanding of the role that they play in society, a set of values.
Over the weekend, it became clear to Guinness that it couldn’t come to an agreement with the organisers of the New York St Patrick’s Day parade, and its policy on gay attendees.
The organisers banned openly gay people taking part in the march, claiming it conflicts with their Roman Catholic heritage. Guinness said it supports diversity and equality, and so the Diageo-owned brand pulled out of yesterday’s St Patrick’s Day parade in New York.
Sponsors are held accountable for the structure and content of events, and rightly or wrongly regarded as complicit in the decisions and actions taken by the event owners
This must have been a tough decision, but a St Patrick’s Day without Guinness sent a very powerful message to the organisers of the event and to all the participants and spectators. Guinness felt it could no longer sponsor the event, as it ran counter to its values of welcoming people from all walks of life into the warm world of Irish sociability.
More and more, sponsors are held accountable for the structure and content of events, and rightly or wrongly regarded as complicit in the decisions and actions taken by the event owners.
Following the introduction of Russia’s anti-gay laws, some of the Sochi Olympics’ big corporate sponsors, including McDonald’s and Coca Cola came under heavy scrutiny.
Zoopla withdrew its sponsorship of West Bromwich Albion after one of its players, Nicolas Anelka, used the "quenelle", likened to an inverted Nazi salute, to celebrate one of his goals. And the list is growing longer and longer.
There are at least two reasons why brands are being put under an increasingly bright spotlight when the sponsorship becomes tainted.
Firstly, human rights issues are highly emotive and the people engaged in protecting them are vocal and well connected. Secondly, the power of social media means that criticism is spread quickly, far and wide.
But what it boils down to is that it is not the voice and pressure of the lobbyists that is most important; the key thing is for brands to remain true to their purpose and values. At Arc we talk about a brand’s purpose – the fundamental reason that it exists. Understanding, fighting for and guarding purpose and values, is essential.
When the values of event owner and sponsor diverge, brands need to have the courage of their convictions to stand up and state their case clearly and quickly and where appropriate withdraw their support.
In some instances, brands could even find that the positive PR and column inches gained from staying true to themselves are worth more than the value of the sponsorship in the first place.
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