You may remember a blog I wrote about the effects of brands taking a political or social stand that reflects the principles of their executives and owners. This often allows brands to stand out from the crowd and create more personal connections with consumers. But what happens when your brand, or one that you are associated with, is under scrutiny or media attack? Are you most concerned with the way that your actions or inactions define your brand’s persona, or will you prioritize your bottom line? Although not mutually exclusive, these are factors that brands often have to weigh when making decisions in the public eye.
One of the biggest bottom-line brands is the NFL. It took a major blow after handling the situation with Ray Rice by giving the player an initial mere 2 game suspension for domestic violence. Heavy criticism was directed at the tolerance and leniency that the NFL had for its violent player’s behavior. The situation really came to a head when the elevator video was released to the public, as there is a strong belief that the NFL had the video to begin with, and didn’t take the case very seriously from the get go.
As a result of the Ray Rice case, Anheuser-Busch issued a severe warning— but has yet to suspend any sponsorship or advertising dollars. Along with Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi and CoverGirl issued statements in which they addressed the issue of domestic violence. However, those companies stand beside McDonald’s, Verizon, FedEx and Marriott on the sidelines, choosing to wait and see what happens before making any decisions regarding sponsorship. How much are the actions of these companies a reflection on these brands? Does the public care about a company’s reaction to these types of scandals? As seriously as these brands take domestic violence, it appears that the revenue connection with the NFL may be too strong for them to speak out against the NFL’s actions.
On a team level, only the Radisson hotel chain parted ways with the Minnesota Vikings after the Adrian Peterson child abuse situation. This decision was made following the Vikings’ General Manager’s announcement to reinstate Peterson for a game against the New Orleans Saints. The Vikings then went back on their decision, deciding to place Peterson back on the “Exempt/Commissioner’s Permission” list, rendering him inactive for all football related activities (yet still receiving his full salary). Although we can’t say for sure that the Radisson deal influenced the change of heart from the Vikings, it seems likely. Even so, it didn’t stop the team from paying Peterson for a job that he wasn’t doing.
When it comes to the athletes themselves, brands seem to distance themselves much faster. Nike, EA Sports, and Vitamax all dropped Ray Rice following his NFL suspension. Similarly, after Peterson was indicted for child abuse, Nike, Castrol, and Mylan all cut their ties with him, and Wheaties removed Peterson’s boxes from the store shelves. Beyond football, Nike ended its relationship with Oscar Pistorius when he faced murder charges. Even a household name like Lance Armstrong, appreciated for philanthropic initiatives well beyond his impressive athletic career, is not immune. Armstrong was completely stripped of all major sponsorships after his doping scandal was confirmed. Tiger Woods lost endorsements from Gillette, Gatorade and Tag Heuer after he announced he was taking a leave of absence from the golf world following his infidelity and subsequent personal strife (although Woods still represents brands such as Nike and Rolex).
In the end, when a brand goes on the defensive, perception and reputation matters, but not as much as the bottom line. The NFL is unlikely to lose any of its sponsors due to its ability to reach and advertise to such a large audience on a consistent basis. America loves its pro football, proven by the fact that NFL audiences and ratings have remained stable in the face of these serious allegations. Is the NFL’s best defense the brand itself? Does this juggernaut of a brand even need to defend its brand or can it solely rely on playing “zone?”