Toyota and Ben & Jerry's show expedience trumps principle
Mills on Monday: Two global brands that seem to be taking principled stands are, in fact, having their cake and eating it
In the week the Tokyo Olympics sputtered into life — bedevilled by many things, not least farce (firing the opening ceremony director days before for 20-year-old misdemeanours) and a sense of hapless incompetence — we have the example of two brands taking apparently principled stances, sacrificing potential commercial gain for the sense of doing the right thing.
Or, more accurately perhaps, being seen to do the right thing.
One is Toyota, a top-level sponsor of the games with an eight-year deal, pulling all its Olympic ads from local TV; the other is Unilever-owned Ben & Jerry’s, which announced it would no longer sell its products in the Occupied Palestine Territory (OPT).
Of course, on one level, they are very different decisions, not least in scale. But at root they come down to the same things: principle and expediency.
Let’s start with Toyota. Given the way state and corporate life in Japan are closely intertwined — witness the Carlos Ghosn affair — a decision like Toyota’s represents a colossal loss of face for the Japanese government which has bet the farm on the success of the games.
And in many ways, it must have been a difficult decision for Toyota to take. Notwithstanding embarrassing the government, just a few years ago it committed just under $1bn with the International Olympic Committee to get its name all over the 2018 Winter Games, Tokyo (2020/21) and Paris (2024).
“There are many issues with the Games that are proving difficult to be understood,” says Toyota’s comms boss, Jun Nagato – a somewhat gnomic statement accompanying the withdrawal that could mean anything.
The public mood in Japan is virulently anti the games and, as a brand with a 50% market share in its home territory, Toyota decided that – hang the cost – it would rather be on the side of public opinion than keep the government and the IOC sweet.
Besides, it is hardly as if Toyota is ceasing all Olympic-themed activity: witness this ad for the UK — a very charming number promoting its support for GB paralympians — and efforts elsewhere, including the all-important US market.
So…Toyota gets to look good in its home market, albeit at a risk to sales, and keep its Olympic sponsorship alive everywhere else. And nor is it as if its branding disappears. Mmmm…a classic case of expediency, AKA have cake and eat it.
But here are two bigger questions, the answer to both of which the IOC will be sweating on.
One, what if, as a result of or despite pulling off Olympics TV in Japan, there is not a blind bit of difference to Toyota’s sales? Sure, the purchase cycle for a car is not the same as that for other Tokyo sponsors (such as Omega, Panasonic, Procter & Gamble or Samsung) but Toyota didn’t go into the Olympics sponsorship business to sell fewer cars, did it?
And two: what if its Net Promoter Score in Japan actually rises?
It won’t happen immediately, and brand attitudes to the Olympics are far from universally shared, but maybe Toyota has in fact opened up the first crack in the IOC’s carefully crafted commercial edifice.
Ben & Jerry's: why now?
And moving on to our old friends Ben and Jerry’s, regular medal contenders in the Olympics of Woke-ism and scourge of Priti Patel among others … it’s service as usual.
This time round, B&J’s has caused a storm of protest by announcing last week it was banning all sales in the Occupied Palestine Territory.
“We believe it is inconsistent with our values for Ben & Jerry’s to be sold in the OPT,” it said on Twitter, a reflection, apparently, of the views of “its fans and trusted partners.”
There are many questions to ask of this decision, one of which is why now? After all, the UN declared the occupation illegal in 2016 and possibly even further back. Weird, really.
Now, while I dislike B&J’s pompous moralising, I also think it’s true(ish) to the brand’s DNA and therefore reasonably sincere.
But, you could say, what about all the other examples of human rights abuse around the world? Myanmar. Yemen. Ethiopia. Sudan. Tibet. Sure, some of these are lower-profile than others but, to take a more high-profile examples, what about the racism directed at the England football team? Or the Uighurs? I’d like to know what B&J’s thinks about those, but on all of which, if you look at its Twitter feed, it is strangely silent.
Which is where it gets interesting. A sceptic might say that the trade-off between winning brownie points and the cost of lost sales is tilted firmly towards the former in a small market like the OPT. Here’s a principle that doesn’t actually cost it much money.
Which makes me think that, like Toyota, B&J’s move, however much it likes to think or pretend otherwise, is more expediency than principle. Or perhaps a certain lack of moral fibre.
Oi, stop that faux mateyness
Aaargh. I’m all for brands being there when I need them, but there’s no need for them to behave as though I’m not there for them.
Yes, I’m talking to Curry’s here, which emailed me last week (my inbox, not junk, more fool me) with the header “Was it something we said?” before telling me it hasn’t been the same around the shop “since I haven’t stopped by for a while” and if I did I would get some “a-may-zing tech” and £30 off if I spend £300.
Doesn’t sound like that much of a deal, and anyway it’s hardly as if I’m always popping in just to chat about the footie even if I don’t buy anything.
But behind the faux mateyness, there’s something clingy, needy, passive-aggressive even, about Curry’s tone of voice, that grates even more. It’s like you’re in a pub chatting to someone you like, and a third person you don’t know and you’re trying to ignore is tugging at your sleeve and irritating you. You just want to swat them away.
Or shout at them…I AM NOT YOUR MATE. GO AWAY.
Got that, Curry’s?
Mills on Monday: Industry commentator and former
Campaign editor Dominic Mills writes a regular Monday column for Mediatel News. Sign up here to receive the column straight to your inbox.