Following the previous post about (RED), I remembered an unfortunate purposeful brand co-creation with Nike and Lance Armstrong Foundation. As I mentioned before, on (RED) example, I was disappointed about the lack of transparency as a donor. To give you an insight, I had a (GAP) t-shirt assuming that the money was used to buy drugs for patients, and on top, I was a medium for the cause with my shirt on. And I had no idea that GAP got half of the money and the rest was used to produce some commercials. So I felt like a non significant medium of an ad campaign.

On Nike example, I believe Nike did the wrong thing, not LIVESTRONG. Again, I had a LIVESTRONG tank-top and I was proud to wear it. It had no emotional links with Lance Armstrong and its Foundation, when you try to support a cause you expect the institutions being neutral and selfless anyways. I bought it and I was proudly wearing it to support the cause and spread the word. It made great sense to me for a sports apparel brand to encourage people to be more active and fit, no matter what the circumstances were. In my perception, it was mainly a Nike brand, Lance Armstrong Foundation was a great enabler and a very relevant storyteller to make the cause resonate with people. For me, the cause had little to do with Mr. Armstrong’s personal career. Nike was not there to support him; it was there to support the joy of living of all cancer patients. It was such a great purpose and such a great branding. However I was pretty wrong, when the doping scandal happened, Nike dumped Lance Armstrong as well as the Foundation, although the foundation cut ties with Mr. Armstrong. Apparently the cause was not theirs, they went after the unbelievable (?) success story of a celebrity athlete and when the story went bad, they left the ship. As they did with Oscar Pistorius, Tiger Woods, Maria Sharapova and Kobe Bryant… There was nothing special about this case for Nike. I do not want to be unfair. Nike made that Foundation strong from the beginning and continued to support them till 2014, two years after the scandal. However, they knew that the Foundation would not live without them and with the bad reputation of their Founder.

So maybe the cause was borrowed to make the sponsorship deal of Mr. Armstrong more inspirational. It was neither like Tom’s partnership model on One for One nor like Chipotle’s Cultivate Foundation. It was neither part of the business nor a philanthropy; it was a boosted sponsorship. Nothing else.

There are many examples of this “indirect” way of a cause branding. Many brands chose to co-own a cause to create a strong positive association but they do not seem to be devoted. Some brands structure a cause as a simple add-ons to an ad campaign like Always’ Fight Like a Girl Foundation or Nike’s Girl Effect and some brands remain shy to build a link – like Red Bull’s Wings for Life Foundation.

When it is philanthropy, I support the humbleness of the companies and brands. Red Bull organizes a huge global running event called Wings For Life World Run to support WFL to find a cure for spinal cord injury. The event itself is also well thought to create room for other sponsors to contribute. The competition idea in design is unique and has many aspects to be much more interesting and therefore has the potential to be popular. It is a race that starts at the very same time in 30+ cities around the world. Some cities run in the morning some run in mid night. And it does not have a finish line, you start to run and half an hour later a vehicle called a “catcher car” starts following the runners and when it catches you, you are out of the competition. Sounds fun.

I assume that there might be strict limitations around the use of the company name, logo or its products by law. And I guess that it is also Red Bull’s choice to be a little humble and not to be perceived opportunistic. However, on the other hand, I can see that Red Bull name is evident as an “owner” on press coverage, as an advertiser, and the product is also present during the event.

That creates a confusion in my mind: since Red Bull is the apparent owner and the proud organizer of such a massive event, why not make the brand link more evident? This way it looks and feels suspicious, because;

  • Although it is not the intention, the word “wings” and the wings in the logo look like a forced branding attempt that feels opportunistic
  • The brand’s existence on the website is only on “shopping” section and there is no clear explanation about what happens with the money of the souvenirs purchased. Brand looks like a vendor
  • Since all the other sponsors are clearly visible on every medium, it feels like Red Bull is not allowed to do that. People may recall the debates about taurine and assume that it is unhealthy as an alcohol or a tobacco brand

So there is a simple problem; since the event is not authentically linked the brand, the brand does not feel like authentically in.

The first thing Red Bull has to do is defining a simple “why” and communicate about it rather than hiding as a brand. Why are they supporting a race for Wings for Life?

To find an answer lets us some questions about the event’s unique qualities:

  • Why does the whole world runs at the same time?
  • Why Red Bull wants us to run for spinal cord injury?
  • Why the competition does not have a finish line but catcher cars?

There may be many answers to these questions. It is better if the answers complete each other. To give you an idea I would humbly recommend a brand linkage that has these answers:

Red Bull asks the world unite to go the extra mile on the way to find the cure to spinal cord injury.

So the answers are obvious now: Red Bull wants us to unite to solve this problem, therefore we should do it all together at the same time. Since the brand gives us wings, it has the license to ask for an action that requires energy. The brand does not ask for donations but our energy to go the extra mile. The “catcher car” is a perfect symbolism of pushing us to go the extra mile and being better than the “problem”. Of course, the current ones definitely need a design touch, to reflect a character of a protagonist maybe… Like a bull in San Fermin. Just maybe.

When the “why” is –somehow- defined, things become easier. Besides many design needs -like the catcher car- the event also needs some word of mouth that would add more fun factor.

How about a gamification? How about counting all the miles a city runs and make it a competition? How about counting all the miles the whole world runs and define the donation figure accordingly? Or how about asking Paralympic athletes to join and share their stories? How about asking Usain Bolt join and make the world see him run his first mile to help his Paralympic friends?

My point is, there is nothing wrong to support a cause as a brand. However, if you want to build a brand association, you have to internalize the cause as a brand and/or as a company. There cannot be a “half of a solution”, because it will feel fake. You’d better live with your cause and own it, or just keep it a nice and simple CSR program and never try to brand it.

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