News Exchange: When do marketers need to step in?
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News Exchange: When do marketers need to step in?

Brands continue to be pushed in lots of new directions, which means marketers must be vigilant in ensuring businesses do not end up on the wrong path

British high streets are awash with the rainbow colours of Pride. Netflix smash hit Stranger Things is overrun with product placements. Betting giants pledge £60m to help gambling addicts. We look at how brands are inserting themselves into new areas of life, and when it becomes necessary for marketing to intervene.

Pride in London takes place every June in commemoration of that same month in 1969, when the Stonewall riots in New York saw members of the city’s marginalised LGBT community protest police oppression. Fifty years on, Pride marked this watershed moment with a series of events culminating in a parade from Portland Place to Trafalgar Square. As more and more businesses give their logos a rainbow revamp in the name of Pride, the question of whether they are appropriately respecting or cravenly undermining the original, radical, authentic spirit of the Stonewall riots grows more pressing.

This year saw high-street retailers, supermarkets, banks and even the Met police give themselves a momentary rainbow makeover. LGBT campaigner and Years and Years singer Olly Alexander told the BBC that “rainbow capitalism” felt “especially icky” in 2019, but drew a sharp contrast between brands that “work responsibly with LGBT people” and those involved in a straightforward “corporate hijacking” of Pride.

Companies have noticed that customers can be impressed by a bit of brand activism, but CIM marketing director Gemma Butler says they must always stop and ask themselves, “Have we earned the right to be there?” Perhaps the year’s most flagrant example of ‘Pride-washing’ came from the UK Home Office. Despite recent data showing it rejected 78% of asylum applications that referred to sexual orientation, the government department still saw fit to adopt the Pride rainbow on social media and was even due to run a stall at the UK Black Pride event in London – until organisers admitted they had made an “error of judgment” and barred them.

With big-name sponsors of Pride this year including Tesco, Barclays and Amazon, businesses do help to keep the event alive – and, crucially, free. However, some brands looking to benefit from this association still make the mistake of underestimating how integrated such initiatives must be. As Butler points out, “There’s a big difference between box ticking and genuine engagement – and consumers tend to know which is which now.”

Stranger danger

From one brand opportunity to another: the release of Stranger Things 3 (ST3) earlier this month. Despite an onslaught of fans binge-watching the series, there has been some concern in the media that Netflix might have mishandled some of the marketing around its hit series. Set in 1985, ST3 is a supernatural nostalgia fest whose ratings success has caught the eye of every brand that remembers the 80s – and a few that don’t.

Nike fabricated a story about some sneakers that it lost in 1985 but is now willing to sell to you alongside ST3-themed sports apparel. First time around, 1985 wasn’t a great year for Coca-Cola – it launched New Coke, but negative public reaction obliged it to quickly re-launch old Coke – but that hasn’t stopped it reintroducing New Coke as an ST3 tie-in. Microsoft has done something similar with Windows 1, while Baskin-Robbins is promoting a few limited-edition ice-cream flavours. Most bizarrely, perhaps, the Chicago Cubs, a baseball team that enjoyed a deeply average 1985 season, launched a Snapchat AR lens that unleashes an ST monster on its home stadium.

We could go on. “The point,” says CIM’s Ally Lee-Boone, “is that Netflix ought to be controlling its environment better. The Coke tie-in has actually done well, but it has made the show a magnet for other brands. The sheer number of them now wanting to jump aboard could threaten the show’s success because, as soon as fans start to notice any sort of brand proliferation, it’s a turn-off.”

If Netflix is a bit too relaxed about the brand invasion of a TV show that would ordinarily be a relatively safe, brand-free cultural space, it falls to the brands themselves to take responsibility. As CIM’s Adam Pyle says, “Like we saw with the Pride bandwagon, sometimes it’s marketers who have to be the adults in the room. The Stranger Things space is now a crowded one so, not only do you need to have a compelling reason to be there, but you need to be sure you can cut through the noise.”

Risky business

Finally this week, an elite group of the UK’s betting giants has declared a “step change” in the fight against gambling addiction. The owners of William Hill, Ladbrokes Coral, Paddy Power Betfair, Skybet and Bet 365 have agreed to increase the voluntary levy on their profits from 0.1% to 1% up to 2023. This is equivalent to a £60m increase in their contribution. Impressive as a standalone figure, but perhaps not quite so monumental when set against, say, the £265m that privately owned Bet 365 paid its founder and CEO in the 12 months to March 2018. (The year before that she had had to settle for just the £217m.)

Are we really seeing a step change then? Don’t bet on it, says Adam Pyle. “This group knows that Labour, in particular, is keen on a mandatory levy, so this looks like them simply trying to cut something off at the path.” Whatever the tactics of the pledge, it comes at a time when £60m doesn’t look like it will be enough. “The NHS has just had to open a gambling addiction clinic for children,” points out Gemma Butler. Betting is strictly adult-only, but an online revolution has left regulators struggling to catch up as placing a bet has become a one-click activity that is often fully integrated into mobile gaming apps. “How do so many children even have access to over-18 products?” asks Butler. “And what are the implicated brands doing to tackle the issue at source?”

NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens has warned betting firms they could be taxed to pay for addiction treatment. It would be a significant bill, too: a recent estimate from the Gambling Commission, the industry regulator, suggested there are 430,000 people with a serious addiction in the UK, including 55,000 children and young people aged 11 to 16.

In light of those figures, the regulator should be having a look at itself and asking how it has let this happen, says Butler, but the marketing departments of the betting giants should also be reflecting. “They appear to be engaged in another form of ‘washing’: making a show of tackling a serious issue, while not actually taking it all that seriously.” Whether it’s the public, the regulator – or even Simon Stevens – that eventually catches up with them, they may come to regret not behaving responsibly while they had the run of their space.

Ultimately, with marketing the guardian of all things brand, businesses must draw on their expertise to ensure that when they enter new spaces, they do so with a clear strategy that makes clear the business case. With customers exceptionally perceptive of tokenism in today's age, half-baked tactics will not deliver.

Want to make an impression in a new space? The latest and greatest marketing job opportunities are all on CIM Marketing Jobs.

Tobias Gourlay Journalist
Gemma Butler Director of Marketing CIM
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