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Why Guinness’ Decision to Withdraw its Sponsorship was the Right Choice.

The last decade has seen brands evolve from simply talking about the benefits of their products and services to highlighting their understanding of the role they play in society and the ‘values’ they hold. Social responsibility is no longer simply about compliance, its a core part of an increasing number of businesses positioning.

This shift has never been more visible than Guinness this week taking the decision not to sponsor New York’s St. Patrick Day Parade because of the event’s organisers attitudes towards gay attendees.

The organisers have banned openly gay groups taking part in the march because accepting the LBGT community’s presence would conflict with their Roman Catholic heritage. Guinness said it supports diversity and equality, and so the Diageo-owned brand felt they had no choice but to pull out.

Sponsors need to choose their investments wisely as they are increasingly held accountable for the structure and content of events, and, rightly or wrongly, regarded as complicit in the decisions and actions taken by the event owners. Even so, to have a St Patrick’s Day without Guinness was a brave move and one which sent a very powerful message. Guinness said in a statement that its values focus on welcoming people from all walks of life into the warm world of Irish sociability and an event which ran contrary to these values, with a policy of exclusion, should not form part of its marketing strategy…even if it is the St. Patrick Day parade.

Following the introduction of Russia’s anti-gay laws, some of the Sochi Olympics’ big corporate sponsors, including McDonald’s and Coca Cola came under heavy scrutiny, and rightly so. To sponsor an event with even the smallest connection to the persecution of a minority seems to infer that you condone the attitude of the Russian Government. Coca Cola claimed in a statement that it has “seen firsthand the positive impact and long-lasting legacy they leave on every community that has been an (Olympic) host”. I would argue this completely misses the point and is irrelevant to the matter at hand. It’s not about the benefit of the 50 billion dollar investment Russia made, it’s about standing up for a set of values and that is simply not mentioned here. Brands like Coca Cola are big enough, with deep enough pockets to bring about real change but they have to have the want to become a voice of that change, just as Guinness has done and Coca Cola has not.

There are at least two reasons why brands are being put under an increasingly bright spotlight when the sponsorship becomes tainted.

Firstly, human rights issues are highly emotive and the people engaged in protecting them are vocal and well connected. Secondly, the power of social media means that criticism is spread quickly, far and wide. You only have to look at recent boycotts to see that if your audience decides your brand is not behaving the way it should, they will speak out and try to force a change. The choice for brands is, therefore, to make the change themselves and use their values as a benefit to the business or to put short term profit before longterm brand value. Did Coca Cola’s silence cost them anything? Probably not in real terms but the better question is whether Guinness will benefit from its decision. I personally hope that it will but we will have to wait and see.

To develop a brand that can prosper in today’s liberal society some would argue that it must wear its values on its sleeve and know when to stand up and use its voice for good. At MTM we talk about a brand’s purpose – what’s the fundamental reason that it exists. The answer should never be ‘to sell more’. A brand’s personality has never been more important to its success and acknowledging, fighting for and guarding those values, is essential. Brands need to have the courage of their convictions to stand up and state their case and where appropriate, withdraw their support.