Redemption for Big Brands

In the past, The Sponsorship Report  has written about the emerging trend among forward-thinking brands to attempt to seize ownership of an issue rather than merely sponsor a cause. It’s the difference between soloist and choir. Ownership makes a brand synonymous with an issue or, more appropriately, the effective resolution of an issue, rather than associating it with an organization or a program. Dove did it with women and self-esteem. Bell appears to be doing it on mental health anti-stigma. CIBC may have done it with breast cancer, although that space has a loud choir in addition to a strong soloist.

The theme was at the heart of a recent online meetup hosted by trendwatching.com. They call it Big Brand Redemption, and the subtext is that the price of being big and powerful is that you cast a giant shadow. Whatever is wrong in the world, chances are a big brand is being held, at least partially, to blame. It’s a consistent consumer narrative, and one that the folks at trendwatching.com believe can change.

Big Brands vs. Start-Ups

Trendwatching.com compares big brands with start-ups. Big brands are at a disadvantage. They’re known quantities with brand narratives that, in many cases, redemption will have to rewrite. It’s a tall and expensive order. Start-ups (trendwatching.com cites TOMS and Tesla as examples) often have social purpose baked in. Besides, they’re small. Their footprints are easy to ignore. But because they’re small, their impact is also limited.

That’s what gives rise to redemption as an opportunity that only big brands can seize. The success of socially engaged start-ups is the proof-point of consumers’ desire to do business with brands that share their values. Big brands have the scale, resources and human capital to take on global problems. What they lack is the will to do so. For big brands to seize the opportunity, they must set the bar high, perhaps so high that failure is a possibility, confident that the market will not punish them for overreaching.

Bell, Canada Post & Ownership of Mental Health

Consider mental health which, before Bell took the reins in 2010, was a cause championed by Canada Post. Canada Post selected mental health as its cause of choice in 2007, committing to address the issue, not merely to sponsor a property. At that time it was white space in the cause sponsorship landscape – acknowledged as a major social problem but largely ignored by corporate Canada. Canada Post said it wanted to own it, a bold decision that was not matched by investment and, arguably, long-term commitment. It promised 1.5% of net revenues, roughly $1.7 million per year, to its program. That was a big number when weighed against other corporate partners engaged in mental health, but against the scale and scope of the issue, not enough to make meaningful change in consumer behaviour or attitude.

By 2010, it was again white space in the cause sponsorship landscape, white space Bell chose to fill with a five-year $50 million commitment (renewed and enhanced in 2015) and an objective of bringing conversation about mental health out of the shadows through its Bell Let’s Talk campaign. Bell has embraced the issue completely, making the incomparable Clara Hughes its public face. Clara’s Big Ride in 2014 galvanized the nation. The program’s impact is felt across the company’s broad sponsorship portfolio and within the company’s corporate culture. Bell-commissioned research shows it has made a transformative difference in awareness of the issue and attitude toward it.

The lesson, it appears, is that if you’re thinking of taking on an issue rather than a property and you’re not prepared to go all-in, think again.

The risk, according to trendwatching.com, is not in overreaching and failing, but in not reaching at all. Big brands, it suggests, cannot survive if profit remains their only purpose.

Embracing Big Brand Redemption: CVS and Unilever

Trendwatching.com identifies four brands that it says have embraced the Big Brand Redemption concept. I’m not convinced all of them fit the paradigm, however. Here are a couple that do:

The sale of tobacco products in drug stores is prohibited across Canada, but not so in the US, where tobacco sales can account for a meaningful percentage of drug store revenue. Despite this, US drug store chain CVS Health unilaterally withdrew tobacco products from its stores in 2014 and followed that up with #BeTheFirst, a five-year US$50 million plan to deliver the first tobacco-free generation in the US.

Unilever, through its Lifebuoy brand, has committed to reaching one billion children in Asia, South America and Africa with an education program promoting handwashing. The goal is to reduce the incidence of respiratory infection and diarrhea, two of the biggest killers of children in the developing world. Unilever initially set 2015 as its target, and missed. It has recommitted itself, however, with 2020 as the new target date.

Both CVS and Unilever are partnering with various organizations to reach their objectives. And both brands have engineered their programs to allow the public to hold them to account.

CVS says that over a five-year period it wants a 3% percent decline in the national youth smoking rate, a 10% decline in new smokers and a doubling of the number of tobacco-free college and university campuses. Given the scale of the problem and the ambition of the program, $50 million over five years may prove to be inadequate. But CVS also has a massive retail footprint in the US and potentially could influence behaviour well beyond what a $50 million investment would buy. The program’s objectives are outside of CVS’s control, giving rise to the real possibility of failure. But, I’d argue, the market won’t punish CVS for failure if the effort is genuine and substantial.

Unilever did fail. It missed its 2015 target by a wide margin, and its response might have been viewed as cynical in other quarters, but it was not. Unilever simply moved the goalposts, setting 2020 as the new target date. Has it been punished by the marketplace? Not at all. The problem was not in the execution, but in the ambition, and it appears that the marketplace readily forgives a brand for overreaching.

At CVS, according to trendwatching.com, general merchandise revenue fell 5% thanks to the tobacco ban, but pharmacy services revenues soared by 13.5%. Unilever’s handwashing campaign is tied to its Lifebuoy brand, which is still widely marketed in developing countries where the program is underway. It will certainly help move product but, like CVS’s initiative, also save lives – evidence that redemption and self-interest can walk hand-in-hand.

This post was adapted from an article that first appeared in The Sponsorship Report.

Mark Sabourin is the host of Sponsorship Week. His career in business-to-business publishing began in 1983, when he joined Corpus Information Services (a division of Southam Communications) as a Managing Editor. At Corpus, and later at Southam Business Publications, he helped launch several newsletters, conference series and magazines. As well as publishing and editing The Sponsorship Report, and convening many events, Mark contributes to several Canadian magazines and newsletters. He holds several Canadian Business Press editorial awards.

Title image editorial credit Bloomicon / Shutterstock.com