When a brand partnership turns toxic

Lego has stopped pumping out Shell-branded toys.
Lego has stopped pumping out Shell-branded toys.

Greenpeace got Lego to stop making Shell-branded toys. What can other brands learn about testing the current of public sentiment?

In the 1960s the car was a liberating force for the Baby Boomer generation and oil companies enjoyed a better reputation.  

It was then that Lego started producing Shell-branded toys such as oil tankers, which are still sold in petrol stations.

This 50-year partnership has just been broken within the space of three months by aggressive campaigning from Greenpeace, which went after the toy company for the perceived sins of Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic.

A million people had signed the pressure group’s petition asking Lego to call time on the deal when Lego suddenly folded last week and promised not to renew it

One particular sentence in its public statement gave an insight into the minds of those running the company: "We do not agree with the tactics used by Greenpeace that may have created misunderstandings among our stakeholders about the way we operate; and we want to ensure that our attention is not diverted from our commitment to delivering creative and inspiring play experiences."

It could be interpreted as a coded admission that the attack campaign was starting to shift perceptions about its brand and distracting it from the primary aim of selling popular toys for children during the essential Christmas trading period.

Matt Rantell, head of strategy at Forever Beta, a comms firm with expertise in creating brand partnerships, says: "For Lego, there was a 50-year relationship behind it so it was never going to be an easy decision to walk... having assessed the pros and cons of the relationship it obviously reached a tipping point."

The episode serves as a cautionary tale about the vulnerability of a brand to becoming 'infected' by the public’s perceptions of its partner.

"What was Lego thinking?" asks Max du Bois, executive director of brand consultancy Spencer du Bois. "Few brands are foolish enough to partner with a weapons group, extractive industries or their ilk because the toxic threat of their activities clearly far outweighs any benefits of partnership. The sound of Shell's skeletons rattling in their closet must have all but drowned out the negotiations but it was a clever move by Shell to partner with a much loved, unblemished brand of childhood innocence."

Rantell argues that constant vigilance is required by both parties in a brand partnership and, arguably, even more so by the ‘benign’ partner.

"Partnerships can become toxic over time, particularly when the brand ambition of one partner strays into areas that don’t fit the strategy of the other," he says. "It is imperative that brands continue to have an aligned north star; without it, it will never work."

Rantell advises creating a "dashboard of success metrics" based on public sentiment, to constantly monitor the success of a partnership and tell a brand when to press the eject button.

He continues: "In some cases the ‘benign’ brand can suffer, potentially with huge consequences. Consider the investment that brands make in building brand reputation and cultivating brand love. A great deal of that time, money and effort can be wasted purely off the back of a poor brand partnership or association – taking years to recover and rebuild."

While is uncommon for a brand partnership to come under sustained assault, this week brought an example of it happening with US theme park operator SeaWorld, which is under pressure to stop staging shows involving killer whales.

The Independent reported that Virgin America has dropped SeaWorld from its airline reward programme after Southwest Airlines ended a 26-year partnership with the attraction earlier this year.

Back in 2012 Greenpeace succeeded in another attack on a Shell partner by forcing Waitrose to pause its plans to open stores in the oil company’s service stations during 2013, although the supermarket has since built nine more in addition to the original pilot of two.

The supermarket even declared undying love for the Arctic in its capitulation statement, which was an implicit slap round the face for Shell and a signal that the environmentally aware supermarket had returned to its core brand values.  

"Successfully attacking, or shaming, a partner brand to get at another brand is remarkably rare," says du Bois. "The Lego / Shell attack was made more prominent for its novelty. Most partnerships are with relatively safe brands, whose few transgressions are small, not systemic and, most importantly, don't create exciting media."

So, although rare for now, the lesson is that brands must be on the lookout for both changes in sentiment and the impact of their partner’s actions and be brave enough to walk away if the mood changes.

 This story first appeared on PR Week.

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