There is one near-certainty that companies sponsoring, or considering a sponsorship of, the 2014 Winter Olympics must accept: Regardless of how supportive a company has been of the LGBT community in the past, brands connected to the games can expect to be in the crossfire of any protests over the recently adopted Russian anti-gay laws.
Unless the Sochi Games are moved or cancelled—with neither being a real possibility at this point—there is a strong probability of disruption and arrests of foreigners whose goal it will be to incite world indignation by pushing Russian authorities to the point where they have to respond.
So how should Olympic sponsors prepare? First, companies need to stay abreast of the situation and monitor the momentum behind the protests. At this point, it has been mostly a war of words—celebrities and Olympic athletes condemning the Russian edicts and threats of boycott or demonstrations at the games—but that is likely to escalate as the games approach.
Thus far, LGBT and human rights activists outside of Russia have directed their outrage at Russian vodka makers, with an unfortunate bull’s-eye painted on the back of popular brand, Stolichnaya. While Stoli responded quickly with a rainbow-colored Facebook advertisement about the brand standing “strong and proud with the global LGBT community” and a public letter from CEO Val Mendeleev condemning the laws, there are still images in the press of bartenders dumping the brand’s vodka into sewers. Social media conversation about the brand also has been dominated by the protests. (See Graphic No. 1)
Non-Russian companies associated with the Sochi Olympics have proved less of a target than Stoli so far. Still, even with the Winter Games six months away, NBC—the network carrying the competition in February—is feeling some heat. Monitoring of social conversations relating to the Olympics and NBC indicate that more than one-quarter of the discussion, between July 10 and August 9, was devoted to talk about boycotts of the Olympics or the network and plans to protest at Sochi. (See Graphic No. 2).
Olympic sponsors that have stood up for diversity like Coca-Cola may ironically have even more pressure put upon them because of their previous commitment to equal rights and fairness and celebrating human differences and choices. Even a sponsor like Procter & Gamble—one of more than 20 corporate partners—has already seen its Olympics-related conversation hijacked by calls for boycotts and protests.
FleishmanHillard’s Authenticity Gap study clearly shows that consumers judge brands not only on the basis of the quality and value of their products and services, but also on how they behave towards society—how they treat employees and the environment, and their commitment to the public good. Although the issue hasn’t been raised yet, companies may be asked in the not too distant future whether doing any business in Russia or with Russia is compatible with their corporate values.
The cause is likely to be embraced not only by the global LGBT community, but also by the same kind of majorities in many countries that support gay marriage, with millennial consumers in particular apt to be in the forefront. Besides monitoring, companies may consider being more pre-emptive by condemning the laws or putting pressure on the International Olympics Committee to do the same. But at the least, brands need to tune their messaging now in anticipation of potential involvement in any disruption of the games or boycott efforts. The Stoli plight demonstrates how innocent bystanders can and most likely will become surrogate targets for Russia.
“It is exactly in the handling of these kinds of difficult situations that a company’s values are demonstrated,” says FleishmanHillard’s reputation expert Peter Verrengia. “While companies are not in the position to dictate policy to host countries, they do have a choice of where to invest and where to operate. In the case of the Sochi games, the question for companies and brands is not whether to do something, but what to do about it.”