Treatment Of Sports Stars Shows Why We’re Losing Trust In Brands

Treatment Of Sports Stars Shows Why We’re Losing Trust In Brands
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In this guest post, Richard Ralphsmith (pictured below), co-founder and executive creative director of independent advertising agency DPR&Co, explains why Australians’ trust in brands is deteriorating, offering a tip for Westpac’s CMO along the way.

Richard Ralphsmith

In recent weeks, corporate sponsors have behaved like overlords in their imperious treatment of our most loved sporting stars and sporting codes. It’s the sort of behaviour that explains why Australians’ trust in corporations continues to slide, according to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer.

Qantas, in its threat to pull its Rugby Australia sponsorship, is placing pressure on the Wallabies, Israel Folau (main picture) and any other player who dares to express a view on a social issue that differs from its own. Folau’s social media comments on gays were insensitive and ill-considered, but he had a right to make them. And Qantas ought to follow its own ‘How We Do Business’ document: “We are committed to building and fostering a culture in which diversity is valued.” As Federal Liberal MP Tim Wilson said last week, companies who claim to respect diversity need to know that “respecting diversity includes diversity of opinion”. The bullying actions of Qantas are hardly ‘The Spirit of Australia’.

In the wake of the cricket ball-tampering scandal, sponsors including Commonwealth Bank, Asics, Sanitarium and LG have shown similar high-handedness in variously dumping Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft. All three players made bad mistakes, but they committed no crime, they apologised, and they’ve shown great remorse. They had already paid a huge price before their sponsors abandoned them.

In particular, Commonwealth Bank did precisely the opposite of what it should have. In the midst of the banking royal commission, imagine a CommBank advertising campaign along the lines of “We’re all human”, using their continued sponsorship of Steve Smith – when others abandoned him – to show how it sticks by Australians through good times and bad.

Instead, CBA followed the tired corporate PR playbook. In doing so, it showed all Australians that its abstract brand values are more important than actual people in their hour of need.

The message for CEOs and CMOs is simple: Australians take a sceptical eye to your brand beliefs. They think you’ll only believe them for as long as it’s expedient. The Edelman Trust Barometer is right when it recommends that brands shouldn’t just claim a belief – they should act on it. If that action entails some risk on your part, that is all the more reason for you to do it. It’s the only way to show that you really mean what you say.

Westpac’s rescue helicopter service is a strong example of this behaviour. For decades, it’s provided proof for Westpac’s corporate vision of helping people to prosper and grow.

It also perfectly aligns with the new brand line: “Help when it matters. It’s what Australians do.”

On that note, here’s a tip for Westpac CMO Martine Jager. With that brand line, you could do a lot worse than to take up a sponsorship straight away with Steve Smith, David Warner or Cameron Bancroft, now that the rest of corporate Australia has abandoned them.

And here’s a tip for all CEOs and CMOs. When your ad agency presents to you a campaign containing the words “At <brand >, we believe…”, show them the door.

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