Ask Bullmore: Should I pull my brand's sponsorship of a dangerous sport?

Ask Bullmore: Should I pull my brand's sponsorship of a dangerous sport?

My brand's sponsorship is commercially successful but I'm concerned about the athletes and have had no reassurances from governing bodies.

Dear Jeremy, I am a marketing director of a sports brand that has heritage in sponsorship of a collision-heavy sport. I am concerned about the impact of collision on the athletes we sponsor and have had no reassurances from governing bodies. Our sponsorship is commercially successful. Should I pull?

It’s no surprise that the governing bodies have been unable to reassure you. The only surprise is that you thought they might. All collision heavy sports will leave some participating athletes permanently impaired. It’s seldomly admitted but this, in part, is what makes collision heavy sports popular.

If Formula 1 cars never crashed, and were known never to crash, Formula 1 racing would lose much of its attraction. So you face the probability, maybe even the certainty, that one or more of the athletes you sponsor will sustain serious physical injury.

You now have to be extremely clear-headed about a reality you’d rather not face. You say you’re concerned – but what are you concerned about? Are you concerned for the athletes you sponsor? Or are you more concerned for the collateral damage your brand might suffer? If it’s your brand – and only your brand – then you can sleep easy.

The harsh truth is this. Your brand owes its reputation to its close association with a manly sport. When those who play that sport are badly injured, it’s just further confirmation of its manliness. It’s the players who run the risk; not the sponsors.

Red Bull does it all the time. Ten million people were watching live when Red Bull paid Felix Baumgartner to jump out of his balloon at a height of 24 miles above the Earth. Surely this could have been one of the greatest PR disasters of all time?

In fact, chillingly, Red Bull was running no risk and showing no courage. Had Baumgartner perished while the world looked on, Red Bull’s reputation for sponsoring scary, hazardous, manly events would only have been heightened.

The risk was all Baumgartner’s. So you, as marketing director, can feel at ease. You’re not behaving irresponsibly. Your brand is not vulnerable. But you as human being? There’s no escaping the fact that your company, through financial inducement, is encouraging healthy young adults to endanger themselves.

You can probably take comfort from the knowledge that, even if you weren’t paying them, they’d choose to do it anyway.

Dear Jeremy, I head up a significant brand at a major media agency and my chief executive just wrote a think piece for a trade publication about how the industry should better flex to retain female talent. I am about to return from maternity leave and my line manager has refused my request for a four-day week. How should I proceed?

I expect you’ve already arranged for your chief executive’s think piece to be left casually open on your line manager’s desk? After that, I suggest sweet reason. Avoid indignation and outrage. Keep your baby-minder out of it. Don’t even hint that you might have right on your side. Instead, start by recognising the inconvenience that your four-day week would cause others. (It will. They always do. It’s nobody’s fault but it’s insulting to pretend otherwise.)

Itemise those inconveniences, never brushing them aside – and show how you plan to neutralise them. I’m not in any way suggesting apology, just imaginative thoughtfulness. Finally, give passing credit to your CEO for having so publicly paved the way. If that doesn’t do it, send for reinforcements.

Dear Jeremy, I was recently promoted to a new board-level role and I have hired a great marketer to replace me. However, as we begin to plan our Christmas campaign, I’m finding it hard not to meddle as it’s so important (plus it’s fun as well). Shall I carry on sticking my oar in or get out?

You know perfectly well. Carry on meddling and you’ll end up with a mess. And you’ll finally admit it’s a mess too late in the day to start again.

You’ll blame the new marketer and the new marketer will blame you. The new marketer will be in the right but, being new, will carry most of the blame. And you’ll have a piss-poor Christmas campaign. Congratulations.

And you thought it was going to be fun?

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