The New Realities of Brand Engagement, Sochi Olympics Edition

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167481461When a brand engagement opportunity comes along, we marketing folk evaluate the amount and type of potential exposure for our brand vs. the cost of the sponsorship. If you’re a mom-and-pop trophy manufacturer, you’re not going to bat an eye before sponsoring a local little league baseball team. If you design custom archery bows and arrows, attendees of the Renaissance Festival circuit would be good targets. And if you’re a mega multinational corporation like Procter & Gamble, you ski jump at the chance to support the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

But agreeing to sponsor the Olympics recently turned from a no-brainer — at least for any company that could afford to — into a test of a company’s petition-response time. What used to be as simple as putting your company’s logo on a sign near the finish line or airing feel-good television ads in between figure skating events now requires that brands decide exactly how they feel on social and political issues — issues that often have nothing to do with the products they sell — before stepping on to an international stage.

The 2014 Winter Olympics in otherwise sleepy Sochi, Russia, for example, are being used by LGBT and humanitarian advocates as a platform to call attention to mistreatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons in that country. You’ve likely heard of the recently-enacted Russian “anti-propaganda” law which bans public support of the LGBT community. It means that even foreigners — including those who visit to see the Games — who do not observe it may be arrested and detained for up to 15 days before being deported. Russia now also prohibits its LGBT citizens from adopting children and will not allow adoptions by single foreigners from other nations that recognize marriage equality.

Obviously, these acts don’t sit well with members of the LGBT community and its advocates, and they’re calling on Olympic sponsors to speak out for equality or pull their sponsorships. And while it’s fair to say that when Coca-Cola, GE and Visa signed on the dotted line years ago to ensure their spot as top sponsors, they weren’t prepared for this, it’s also true that this level of consumer-brand engagement is the new normal.

“We live in interesting times as brand marketers,” writes Brad Fuller, U.S. managing director for marketing agency Rivet Global. “The stakes of brand marketing are higher than ever. Consumers today look at their relationships with the brands they buy as an implied contract, one in which a brand is obligated to support the wishes of its consumers in return for loyalty. Brands that don’t get that, especially larger companies that tend to be more visible, run the risk of losing the deep consumer relationships they have worked so hard to achieve.” 

Fuller notes that new realities are changing brand engagement rules. First of all, what happens in another country doesn’t stay there (hello Internet). This global transparency means money spent advertising in markets on the other side of the globe can have ramifications here in America. And it doesn’t have to involve the Olympics, either. P&G, for example, is Russia’s top television advertiser and advertises on a television network in Russia that has aired controversial anti-gay comments by popular news personality Dmitry Kiselev. In response, American gay rights advocates and supporters called on P&G to pull all advertising from the station — one which is owned by the Russian government itself. So far, no comment from P&G, another top-tier Olympics sponsor.

Secondly, Fuller suggests that when today’s consumers support (i.e., purchase) a brand, they believe they also have purchased the right to influence the actions of the company behind the brand. Boycotts, petitions and demonstrations have rattled many a corporation into bending an ear to its consumers, who might more accurately be described as “constituents” going forward.

Finally, Fuller cautions companies that the days of staying out of hot political issues are numbered.

“Even if your brand or your company has taken no clear stand on an issue and chooses not to participate in the advocacy marketing phenomenon, sitting instead on the sidelines, you may still be drawn into the fray,” he notes. “Manufacturers today must be ready to respond when consumers demand their support, and they must also educate themselves about the consequences for their business. Even choosing to not respond is a response that may mean an impact on sales and brand image for the short or long term.”

Do you have a feel for this in your realm, dear readers? Tell us all about it below!

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