Dear CMO: The back story to this post is that I originally wrote a piece chiding SABMiller for sponsoring the somewhat distasteful Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco, a local event catering to a sub-segment of the gay population that leans, shall we say, to the extreme.
My criticism is warranted purely on marketing grounds for two reasons, regardless of one’s predilections: first, it likely offends the middle 95% of Miller’s US customer base, and second, it exposes the public at large and children specifically to public obscenity. If you don’t believe me, follow the links (just don’t do it at work). So I am confident that a solid majority of reasonable people might find the company’s actions to be poorly thought out. But this isn’t my point.
I’m not a journalist. My blog posts are op ed pieces …. they are my opinions, reflections of current events on my experience, and the lessons I’d apply to them. I seldom research my posts, because the act of research alone pushes me towards a journalistic approach; in other words, if I don’t know the subject matter, I shouldn’t be writing about it. I had to pull on the SABMiller thread a little to get more context, and what I found was worth sharing.
We’ve talked quite a bit at Note to CMO about authenticity …. connecting core brand attributes with reality. We’ve also promoted, wherever possible, the connection of brands with social responsibility …. enlightened self-interest, delivered through cause-related promotion. SABMiller, the South African parent of Miller Brewing Company, has labeled HIV/AIDS a top corporate priority. Many of their primary markets in Africa have been devastated by AIDS, as we all know.
So it makes tremendous sense that a company like SABMiller would choose to grapple with this issue with its scarce financial resources and time, and their efforts should be lauded and not casually criticized. SABMiller’s activities in this area represent a purely authentic alignment of corporate goals, the wants and needs of the market, the natural setting and use of the product itself, and corporate philanthropy.
Which brings us to San Francisco. In attempting to follow the bouncing ball from South Africa to the Bay Area, one must wonder how SABMiller’s priorities were first disseminated and then executed throughout the organization. I can only come to the conclusion that someone, somewhere, didn’t fully comprehend the spirit of the message and that another person didn’t ask enough questions prior to signing off.
The path probably began at step one — combating HIV/AIDS – to a logical interpretation of this strategy for the US market …. a focus on the gay market …. to a further, seemingly related option — the Folsom Street Festival, replete with public displays of leather and bondage for all.
Each step, unfortunately, takes one further away from the spirit of the intent. They are now the subject of ridicule, have offended the conservative part of their market who live everywhere from just to the left of Manhattan to the right hand corner of Los Angeles, and have opened themselves up to what could be a highly amusing competitive onslaught on every football game in America for months to come. It never should have come to this.
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> Connecting priorities with actions is important enough to elevate to the highest levels of an organization. As we recently saw with Jet Blue and Yearly Kos, not doing your homework on the exact nature of an event, a market or a likely outcome can cost you dearly. This seems to be a recurrent theme with SABMiller, after stumbling into an illegal immigration sponsorship problem earlier.
> Remember that when one aligns a brand with a cause, the effect can be polarizing. I found this when trying to align a technology brand with environmental activism many years ago: 40% of my market loved it and 40% hated it. We’d all rather work on more solid ground.
> Do a “potential problem analysis” where one tells the worst case scenario …. before the event …. allowing us to stop the unwanted future from happening. Call it the Journeyman school of pre-emptive market planning.
> We live in an age of social media. The internet. Bloggers. Nothing is “local” anymore. You can’t hide. What you do in San Francisco will be quickly read in Milwaukee in a matter of hours.
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I hope and trust SABMiller does a full and complete post mortem on this decision and retools their thinking so that they can tell their very authentic story in a positive and generative light. Brands like SABMiller and Jet Blue need to think through the implications of not just what they do, but how they choose to do it. Without this degree of judgment, the best laid plans with the noblest of intentions are crowded out by photos of adults being spanked in public.
Which is an image I didn’t really need to see.