Column: Russia Picked the Wrong Fight
October 01, 2013 | Comments
The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. – Olympic Charter
Sponsors – get ready for the LGBT Games in Sochi.
Russia’s law against gay “propaganda” has lit a controversial flame that is being fanned by media and gay rights advocates around the world.
Many in the LGBT community have called for an Olympic boycott. Major brands like McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble, both Olympic sponsors, have been targeted and activists are demanding that these corporations dump their sponsorships.
Today, consumers see sponsors as having the financial influence to effect change and are asking them to hold properties accountable. Complicating matters further, the relationship between sponsors and consumers has also evolved. Social media has strengthened the consumer voice and when brands don’t respond it is clear and visible to all.
As a sponsor do we need to re-examine the brand’s role as social advocate based on consumer expectations?
The legislation and media coverage will certainly cast a shadow over the Games and distract from both activations and the reasons why companies get involved. Sponsors must be prepared to answer the questions about their involvement in the Sochi Games and their stance on gay rights multiple times leading into and during the Games. This is not necessarily a bad thing if the brand is prepared for these questions.
So how can sponsors react?
First off, all sponsor brands can “do the right thing” by supporting the broader gay community in their own country and all athletes regardless of their gender, religion, race or sex. Beyond this, sponsors can choose to take greater action to profile the cause leading into and during the Games.
So why get involved?
Sponsors must first go back to their brand values as well as their strategic reasons for sponsoring the property – for the Olympics this typically is rooted in national pride and athleticism. Second, consider the long-term – this should not be about a quick-hit marketing win. Keep in mind the gay community may recognize it as opportunistic and not genuine if there is no sustained support or commitment to the cause. Any action taken here needs to be for the long-term.
How can sponsors begin to navigate this polarizing issue?
Point to why they are there and espouse the Olympic charter that clearly advocates for human rights globally. Stand by the IOC as the governing body and smartly apply pressure to ensure that athlete rights are protected and that the IOC considers these issues when evaluating future host city bids. Express equal support to athletes participating in the Olympics regardless of their gender, race, religion, or sexuality. At the core, this is about equality, not about pro-gay propaganda. Widely promote their own gay platform (should they have one) in their home country both through paid and PR media channels during the Games. Again – this must be authentic and live beyond the Games.
What impact will this have on sponsor and property relations going forward?
Today, sponsors factor in brand alignment and strategic fit of potential partners. In the future, sponsors must consider the corporate values and commitment to social responsibility that properties demonstrate. Beyond this, sponsors must be ready to advocate for the views of their organization and their consumers when the time comes.
Will we see athletes take a stand in Sochi?
I think so. Russia has picked a fight with the wrong audience at the wrong time and given that the LGBT community has made so much progress in recent years around the world this is a fight they’ll take on. Unless the law is struck down, this will indeed go down as the LGBT Games.
Matthew Logue is vice-president, strategy and partner at S&E Sponsorship Group Inc.