Villing & Company

Co-branding: Choose your partners wisely

“Is sticking by the NRA a branding problem?  FedEx poses a test case.”

The headline in this recent  USA Today piece caught my attention for many reasons. Merging business topics with political discussions is always uncomfortable, all the more so when it also involves a major tragedy such as the mass shooting at the Parkland, Fla. high school. I venture into this territory only because this headline speaks to a cautionary tale that all marketing organizations need to consider.

We often read about brands needing to distance themselves from a celebrity whose star has fallen due to some scandalous behavior. Lance Armstrong and Subway’s Jared Fogle immediately come to mind. While celebrity relationships typically get more publicity than simple co-branded marketing partnerships, the latter can also turn from good to bad in a hurry – as we’ve seen in the last two weeks.

Throughout my career, I have seen many situations where a company will align itself with a person or an organization simply because it seems like a good idea at the time. Maybe it is because that marketing partner is the celebrity du jour or the organization is getting a great deal of media attention. And while we all want to leverage a unique opportunity, we also have to think strategically and evaluate both the relevance of the relationship and the longer-term ramifications. 

None of us has a crystal ball and the ability to foretell unexpected developments. I would like to think Subway had no clue that Jared Fogle would experience such a precipitous fall from grace. Conversely, Lance Armstrong’s vulnerabilities were rumored long before the scandal became an official embarrassment for the U.S. Postal Service, Livestrong, Nike and others.

There is no doubt that the NRA is extremely popular among gun owners and a certain segment of contemporary society. And for brands like FedEx, Delta, Hertz and scores of others, access to NRA’s multi-million members appears on paper to be a good opportunity. But at what cost? Long before this incident, the NRA has taken controversial positions that have alienated at least as many people as they have brought in through base supporters. And now one must wonder what residual negativity may linger with the next generation of consumers who appear to be passionately invested changing the national dialogue on gun control. When the smoke clears, questions must be asked. Was a co-branding program with the NRA in the long-term best interests of these various marketing partners? Was it relevant to their brands?

In the USA Today article, Aaron Kwittken, head of a New York corporate brand reputation and crisis management agency shared this quote: “Unless you’re in an adjacent industry like hunting, having a public connection with the NRA is highly detrimental to a brand.” That’s a very strong statement that may not be completely fair, but it does reinforce my point about relevance.

I believe relevance is one of the most crucial elements of the marketing decision-making process. Going back to the spokesperson analogy, I am reminded of situation early in my career. The agency I was with had Wheel Horse Lawn & Garden Tractors (now part of Toro) as a client. They made a great product. At some point, the decision was made to hire Jackie Stewart, the well-known Formula One racing driver as the Wheel Horse spokesperson

Stewart was popular and ostensibly brought borrowed interest to the advertising campaign. What he did not bring was genuine credibility.  Stewart was known for his ability to drive fast. I was never sure how that was relevant to driving a lawn tractor. Fortunately, Stewart never was involved in any scandalous activities that would have harmed Wheel Horse’s brand image. But, to the best of my recollection, neither did he bring any identifiable sales impact to the association. Long before the contract ran out, Wheel Horse lost interest in the relationship and that was that.

When it comes to picking a marketing partner, we would all do well to remember the advice our parents gave us. Choose our friends wisely.

Filed Under: Marketing, Advertising, Branding

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