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Can aligning your brand with a cause do more harm than good?

02/05/2013

Forget Nike and Lance Armstrong; that was and continues to be just about the huge sums of money involved.  What about when smaller brands align themselves with causes for perhaps the best of intentions but circumstances evolve in an undesirable way?

I was listening to a Radio 5 Live segment on Victoria Derbyshire’s programme covering the ongoing appeal of Lindsay Sandiford, the 56 year old Briton convicted of smuggling £1.5m worth of cocaine in Indonesia and sentenced to death.

In a nutshell, the UK government won’t pay the lawyers’ fees for her appeal against the death sentence for fear it will set a precedent for other convicted Brits overseas.  Various campaigners have raised money in the UK to pay for those fees and people passionate about this cause have donated – all fair enough.

But Lindsay Sandiford would not answer 12 of the 14 questions put to her (via the charity Reprieve) about the offence or the details of the coercion listed as part of her defence.  What she did say was shared via written statements.  Excerpts that caught my ear included:

Just Giving and the public have done what the British Government fight not to do at great public expense

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to all the people who made donations together with the uplifting messages of support… I was beginning to think that my situation was unbearable.  I felt totally stranded and alone.  The public’s caring has shown me how wrong you can be.

Just Giving has shown me that you’re never alone.  People really do care when they know.

So what’s been published could be perceived as LS thanking the donors for supporting her when she can’t afford lawyers to support herself which I’m sure is what the cause was all about.

However, this could easily be perceived very differently:

  • Just Giving has taken a leading role in fundraising and encouraging users of their site to donate
  • Just Giving has a direct link to this case and the convicted individual concerned
  • Just Giving supports convicted drug smugglers.

I’m not privy to Just Giving’s CSR policies and I don’t believe the folks there are in the habit of getting embroiled in contentious causes, as they need to facilitate all of their charity clients’ causes.  But I don’t KNOW.  And neither do the majority of people listening to that radio show.

So we’re left with an impression that a brand we know may be involved in activity we might not support and charity clients and individuals may act accordingly.

If there is a moral to this story, I think it’s simply a timely reminder that:

  1. We can’t really control what people say and think about our brands so our actions are important to keep supporters and customers believing that they’re doing the right thing by associating with us
  2. We need to accept that in the age of the dominance of soundbites rather than information, we need to think very carefully about the causes and activities we associate ourselves with to ensure they can’t be easily misconstrued
  3. Lastly, the causes supported by our brands (charity or otherwise) should be appropriate for our organisation’s objectives and values so that any ‘misunderstandings’ are inoffensive and much more easily countered.

 I’ll be interested to see if this is any kind of news in a few weeks… if it isn’t, we’ll also have learned that perhaps we can get away with the odd brand faux pas as long as we positively continue to do what we say we’ll do for our customers and supporters.

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