BALANCING VALUES WITH VALUE

1 month ago

Sportswear brand New Balance dropped England cricketer Ben Stokes this week saying it “does not condone behaviour that does not match our brand culture and values”.

Stokes was arrested at the end of September on suspicion of causing actual bodily harm and yesterday apologised to Katie Price for a video that appeared to show him mocking her disabled son Harvey.

New Balance’s decision is a reminder of the reputational risk that comes with sponsoring high-profile athletes – and the conundrum brands face when they step out of line.

We often talk about a brand’s values becoming their moral compass in a crisis and New Balance has decided that the impact on its reputation outweighs the value Stokes’ endorsement brings to its business.

But that’s not always the case. There are countless examples of brands sticking with athletes (and organisations) who find themselves in the headlines for the wrong reasons. Think Tiger Woods, Maria Sharapova… and FIFA.

The reality is that the commercial value of a sports star (or, in the case of FIFA, the World Cup) will always be a consideration when a company is weighing up whether to terminate a contract following a scandal. One wonders, for example, what Cristiano Ronaldo would have to do for Nike to drop him, such is his value to the business.

Brands must, of course, do their due diligence (audits, risk assessments etc) before signing any sponsorship deal. But it’s often the risk factors – such as fiery, passionate, unpredictable personalities – which attract the brand to the athlete in the first place.

Ultimately, it comes down to balancing your company’s values and the impact of a scandal on your reputation with the commercial value of the athlete or property to your brand. And the communications team should be an integral part of that conversation.

One further consideration is the recent trend in sport for brands to make their values a more central part of their marketing. As sport becomes more inclusive, we’ve seen a host of companies put a greater focus on women’s sport, Guinness run a campaign with Gareth Thomas talking about the challenges of coming out as gay, and Nike highlight the struggle transgender athletes face when they compete.

Companies shouting louder about their values brings with it an expectation that they’ll stand up for those values in reaction to a breaking scandal. While commercial impact will always be a factor, brands need to be consistent in their communications and there’s a danger that the positive messages they put out there could be undermined if they don’t stand up for their beliefs in times of trouble.

Rob Lester 

Head of Issues and Crisis Management