To thine own self be true

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The feminist. The dog fanatic. The ‘leftie’. We can easily be labelled for standing up for a cause, but brands must often pick their battles more carefully than we do as individuals.

Taking a stance as a person is one thing, but the impact on brands can be significant. It is hard to take a genuine position and align your brand with a cause or a passion if you don’t have clarity about what your brand stands for.

Recently, I’ve been working with the amazing team at the Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival, helping to look after sponsors.

Even with strong ticket sales and incredible community support this year, events like this would struggle to get off the ground without the generosity of companies prepared to make a commitment to supporting the arts in their region.

And all hail to them.

Arts and sports sponsorship are seemingly easy choices in terms of brand alignment.

Some companies sponsor because of personal interest, or a general desire to give back to their community.

Others relate sponsorship decisions to pre-determined brand values, such as the pursuit of excellence, or teamwork. One sponsor told me not to shy away from aligning her brand with something a ‘a bit out there’ in the Festival programme, because ‘being brave’ is part of their whole company philosophy.

You are unlikely to offend anyone by arts or sport-based relationships if the content and ethos of the performance or event is aligned with your organisation’s values. On rare occasions there will be influences beyond your control, such as the off-field antics from a sports team, which may make a sponsor nervous by association. Think of Tiger Words and Gatorade.

But when it comes to causes that are slightly more emotive or potentially controversial, brands must think long and hard about appropriate synergies.

I’ve been thinking about this a bit recently, influenced by the Time’s Up movement and International Women’s Day. Although I wouldn’t label myself a feminist, I have a moderate sense of sisterhood. But would I bring that solidarity into play with how I talk about my business? Probably not overtly, no. But that’s just how I’m deciding to position my brand.

I’ve never been a protestor. Well, that’s not quite true. At Uni back in England, I tagged along on a rally against education reform, but I secretly only went so I could get a free bus to London from the Midlands and spend the weekend with one of my brothers. Worried about being rumbled by the organisers, I went on the march and somehow found myself among a group sitting in the road in front of the Houses of Parliament. I spent the rest of the weekend in fear of our parents seeing me on BBC News.

So, that tells you, from both angles, that I’m not one for putting my head above the parapet of controversy and, now running my own business, I imagine that position will be even less likely to change.

McDonalds this year flipped its famous golden arches upside down to make a ‘W’ in support of International Women’s Day. Nice touch, said many. Try again, said many others, calling the organisation out on its refusal to move to a living wage pay policy.

I wonder where this initiative sprung from within McDonalds. It is often too easy to see when ideas that hang on the emotive crowd-hooks of the day have come from marketing departments or agency brains, rather than from top level strategic brand leadership. I can picture the discussion now, in an agency’s meeting room: “What are our target audiences stressing about now? Plastic bags, microbeads, paleo diets?
Let’s align our message to what’s makes them tick today.” Yes, be current and relevant, but approach with caution unless your idea is derived from genuine brand authenticity.

Do you think the company that produced a pink beer for International Women’s Day really gives two hoots about gender equality or just wants to sell more beer? Cynical? Me?

I knew a consultancy who often said they’d never accept work from religious-based organisations, cigarette companies or lawyers, lumping them all together in the same egregious boat. If brand values don’t align at a fundamental level, some working relationships are doomed to fail or, at very least, set both sides up for a very bumpy ride.

You never know, I may soon find myself faced with an issue that boils my blood so much that I feel the need to speak out, and my business brand might amplify those views. Part of me hopes that I will uncover a hidden passion. But I suspect I’ll be happy if I can navigate my business successfully led mostly by a simple dose of common-or-garden honesty and integrity. That’ll do me.

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Vicki Jones

Vicki Jones is director of Dugmore Jones, Hamilton-based marketing management consultancy. Email vicki@dugmorejones.co.nz