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April 13, 2021 // Paul Sears // Opinion  //       //  Opinion

The Risks of Doing the Right Thing: MLB, Delta and Coke’s Gamble with Purpose and Politics

Americans live in a highly politicized environment, where truth can be utterly relative. The impact on brand reputation can’t be understated. MLB, Delta Air Lines Inc. and The Coca-Cola Co. recently spoke out against new election laws in Georgia, which some view as acts of discriminatory voter suppression. Yet, in standing up for what they believe is right, these brands have faced tremendous backlash.

"Georgia Republican  Gov. Brian Kemp and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio accused [Delta and Coca-Cola] of cowering to the demands of 'woke' liberals,” Benjamin Fearnow reported in Newsweek. “Rubio used a ‘#WokeCorporateHypocrites’ hashtag last week to ridicule the company executives who are criticizing the recently passed GOP voter law in Georgia."

"Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, told United Airlines to ‘just shut up' after the airline followed the same, controversial route taken by their competitor Delta Air Lines in attacking Georgia's new election law,” Fox News said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky told The Hill it was “stupid for corporations to wade into politically divisive battles” because “Republicans drink Coca-Cola too, and we fly and we like baseball.” 

When we think about brands taking a stand, the word “purpose” often comes into the conversation. As Accenture puts it, moving “from me to we” has led many brands to establish purpose as a key differentiator. And it has paid dividends.

“The data that supports the thesis that ‘Purpose’ (the catch-all term for ‘business as a force for good’) is good for business is overwhelmingly clear,” Afdhel Aziz said in Forbes. “By pretty much every measure of brand health, consumers are more likely to try, stay loyal, pay more and advocate for brands that genuinely do good.” 

Yet, purpose and responsibility are too frequently confused and conflated -- often with disastrous consequences. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines purpose as “the reason for which something is done or created.” Responsibility is “a moral obligation to behave correctly toward or in respect of” something.  

In other words, purpose is the singular raison d’être that should drive everything an organization does. Responsibility is the organization’s motivation to engage in social issues. Both of these are critically important. Both require a company to take a stand. But when done right, the stand should never come as a surprise to anyone. The brand is simply standing for what it clearly, loudly and telegraphically always stood for in the first place.

Allison+Partners Managing Director of Global Reputation Risk & Public Affairs Barbara Laidlaw said brands should exercise caution when reacting to the hot-button issue of the day. 

“We always counsel our clients to not only consider what they will say, but to also develop a plan of action to back up their message as well,” Laidlaw said. “Over the past year, countless businesses have exposed their brands to reputational risk because of public-facing statements that conflict with past action or lack thereof. In short, the brands that succeed in this space do not approach these issues with a one size fits all mindset, rather they consider how they fit into the overall equation and what they can do from that position to have a positive impact."

Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard famously said, “Purpose (which should last at least 100 years) should not be confused with specific goals or business strategies (which should change many times in 100 years).” 

It certainly should not be confused with opportunistic PR moves. From purpose springs a focused vision, mission and shared values. Shared values lead to corporate responsibility. The connections here have to be explicitly clear, and must be consistently demonstrated in words and actions in order to be widely seen and understood.

Sadly, searching “Major League Baseball purpose statement” does not yield the information in question. Chasing this thread leads to the MLB Players Alumni Association website, with language that could loosely be interpreted to provide a “why” for the All-Star move. 

Likewise, searching “mission statement” on the Delta website yields “sorry, no results.” “The world’s most trusted airline” has been harshly criticized for its mixed messages in Georgia; perhaps it’s no surprise to find the brand has buried the lede on what it stands for.

Coca-Cola boasts a dedicated webpage stating in large type: “Our Purpose: Refresh the world. Make a difference.” It’s much easier to draw a line to Chairman and CEO James Quincy’s April 1 statement, “We want to be crystal clear and state unambiguously that we are disappointed in the outcome of the Georgia voting legislation.” 

At the end of the day, no brand is above reproach. Reputational risk is everywhere and must be managed carefully. MLB, Delta and Coca-Cola did the socially responsible thing in my view, and many Americans agree. But without clear foundations for these moves, they suffered backlash that will likely leave financial scars. 

The takeaway -- brands must emphatically state their purpose, and build a coherent culture around it. Then create clarity and buy-in so that, en masse, the entire organization can consistently put that purpose into action again and again. 

This is why our team is so passionate about helping brands define a purpose that can truly last a hundred years -- and helping them use it as a springboard for a purposeful expression of responsibility.

Paul Sears is Executive Vice President, Brand & Engagement Strategy.  With nearly 20 years of experience in strategic planning, Paul’s team has helped more than 75 B2B and consumer clients with purpose-driven brand strategy, product marketing, customer experience planning, go to market strategy, and ‘big idea” creative strategy. Prior to joining Allison+Partners, Paul worked at leading advertising agencies such as DDB, Saatchi & Saatchi and TBWA\Chiat\Day.  Paul holds a Bachelor’s degree in Advertising from the University of Colorado, Boulder as well as marketing strategy certifications from Cornell University’s SC Johnson School of Business and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.  Paul also holds two certifications in Agile Scrum, and is a certified professional dog trainer.  

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