Remember the good old days? They weren’t always as rosy as we thought they were. When I was young it was commonplace to see cigarette advertising everywhere. The Marlboro Man held sway in billboards across the country. When tobacco companies were banned from advertising, they switched to plastering their brand over Formula One cars and cricket matches. Big tobacco basked in the reflected goodwill and positive experiences associated with sports.
The latest incarnation of brand washing can be seen with the emergence of mining, extractive and fossil fuel companies sponsoring an array of sporting events in Australia. A report by the New Weather Institute last year uncovered over 250 sponsorship and advertising deals between high carbon polluting companies and sporting teams. Gina Rinehart seems to be singlehandedly bankrolling Australian swimming whilst Surf Lifesaving Australia is being supported by petrol giant Ampol -despite the impact on coastal environments. Are the fossil fuel corporates taking inspiration from their tobacco friends?
The risk of brand washing through sponsorship is always present, whether in sports or other non- profit environments. The key is in identifying, assessing and managing the risk.
Understand your no-go areas and hot spots
What works for your charity will be different for another organisation. The weapons manufacturers such as BAE, Raytheon, Lockheed- the self-described ‘merchants of death’- appear often on the no-go list of many non-profits. Weapons and children are not a good mix, so the partnership between The Smith Family and BAE attracted plenty of criticism and did not proceed. However, weapons companies are aligned perfectly with the defence personnel supported by Legacy Australia and their forthcoming centenary event.
Consider the perspective of your audiences
What might be a promising commercial opportunity can be a misfire for your audiences and stakeholders. Consider running some focus groups with your key donors or supporter groups to get their insights into a future high value partnership. When VicHealth explored corporate partners, they were keen to avoid the controversy generated by the Heart Foundation’s support of McDonald’s and decided to remove junk food, bottled water and alcohol companies from their target list. They didn’t want their health messages diluted by associations that would be a misfit for their audiences.
Consider the motivations for the sponsorship
Is there a meaningful alignment between the values of the corporate and your brand? You want to look for sponsors that have demonstrated real commitment to your organisation or the cause, rather than show up to ride the wave of the latest hot topic. Full marks to the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras for their ethical charter that sets out their values and expectations for partners who have a genuine and deep engagement with the LGBTIQ+ community. You want to avoid the backlash that accompanied the ‘special 9/11 commemorative Oakley sunglasses’ or the Pepsi adverts claiming to solve Black Lives Matter issues.
Include a get out clause
Things change quickly. Just ask Rio Tinto shareholders after the Juukan Gorge debacle. You need to include review points and exit clauses in your sponsorship agreement. Then you can respond quickly to any meaningful changes and limit potential damage to your non-profit brand and reputation. Sporting teams have already moved quickly to remove sponsorship from the Russian company Gazprom. Expect the unexpected and be prepared to act promptly.
Whether it’s tobacco or fossil fuels, there will always be corporate brands wanting to leverage the goodwill and reputation of your non-profit. Some careful assessment and a good risk management framework will allow you to reap the benefits of the partnership whilst minimising the inevitable risks.