Helen Edwards: Who takes responsibility for a brand's past mistakes?

Helen Edwards: on brand jeopardy
Helen Edwards: on brand jeopardy

The International Olympic Committee's draconian policy toward corporate branding in Olympic venues has not saved it from the taint of a controversial brand.

For the duration of the 2012 Games, the International Olympic Committee will enforce what it calls a "clean stadia policy". This means that inside any arena in which an Olympic event takes place, there will be no corporate branding.

In the specially commissioned complex at Stratford, this has been straightforward to arrange. It is another matter, though, in the numerous pre-existing venues that will host Olympic events, which include Wembley, Lord's, Old Trafford and Brands Hatch.

So specialists have been contracted to audit these venues and identify where brand marks are now, in preparation for their removal later. The audit will be sufficiently thorough to pinpoint even the logos of manufacturer brands glazed into the ceramics of toilet cisterns.

If these cannot be easily erased, they will be hidden from the eye with masking tape. Clean means clean.

It is an irony, therefore, that the plan to allow an exterior sponsored "wrapper" on the main East London stadium has engulfed the Olympic movement in the fallout from the dirtiest corporate catastrophe of modern times: Bhopal.

The sponsor of the wrapper, at a cost of £7m, is Dow, one of the world's biggest chemical manufacturers and already an Olympic supplier.

The controversy arises from Dow's purchase, in 1999, of Union Carbide, owner of the pesticide plant in India that in 1984 spewed out poisonous gas, resulting in the deaths of more than 4,000 people.

The sponsorship plan unleashed a media storm culminating in the resignation of Meredith Alexander from the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, who vows to support families still lobbying for the case to be reopened.

Dow's reaction to the furore was brisk and unequivocal: "The fact is that Dow never owned nor operated the Bhopal plant ... Dow was never there."

When one business buys another, what does it acquire? Along with the capability, people, plant and customers, it takes on less quantifiable phenomena - reputation, heritage and accountability. In short, a brand.

Such controversies serve to remind us how brands came about in the first place, and the purpose they really serve. Their genesis dates to a time when people were regularly cheated by shifting and unaccountable traders. Dirty practices included adding water to butter, chalk to flour and sand to sugar – along with routine cheating at scales.

Then, more upright individuals and groups, often driven by a common morality such as that of the Quakers, developed enduring trade names and marks that came to symbolise their commitment to fair dealings.

Brands established trust. How, exactly, though? Through jeopardy. It is the vital vulnerability at the heart of the corporate mark, without which the whole edifice of branding would be meaningless.

The public knows that the brand owner has invested in its reputation, symbolised it for all to see, and has a great deal to lose by being at fault. Potential loss by one party is key to the trust of the other.

Dow's misjudgement is not to seek to sponsor the Olympic ideal. To be publicly visible and seen to invest in your corporate presence is what good brands do.

The error lies in the choice of words: "Dow was never there." Then who was? For reasons that suited its corporate balance sheet at the time, Dow swallowed Union Carbide's assets and jeopardy, both, in 1999. It cannot seek now to apply masking tape over Bhopal.

Helen Edwards has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand

30 seconds on: Brand Jeopardy

As these brands will attest, the jeopardy is real. Whatever the instigating event results from, it can take decades for trust to be restored – if it ever is.

  • Nestle, infant formula scandal: It is almost 40 years since NGO War on Want published a report entitled 'The Baby Killer', exposing Nestle's promotion of infant formula over breast milk in the developing world. The company has struggled to overcome the stigma ever since.
  • McKinsey, Galleon Case: Global managing director Dominic Barton ventured that it could take 20 years for McKinsey to re-establish its credibility after one of its senior managers pleaded guilty to insider dealing in the high-profile 2011 trial.
  • BP, Deepwater Horizon oil spill: BP initially sought to deflect blame for the 2010 environmental disaster onto its supplier, Transocean. Faced with the decimation of its own brand, the business swiftly adopted a more contrite position, which culminated in the resignation of its chief executive, Tony Hayward.
  • News International, phone-hacking: The scandal led to the closure of the UK's bestselling newspaper last July, compelled the Murdochs to appear at a public inquiry and put paid to NewsCorp's bid for full ownership of BSkyB.


Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus
Brand Republic Jobs

subscribe now


Center Parcs ad banned for encouraging parents to take kids out of school
Coca-Cola, Cadbury and Amazon named top brands for targeting youth market
Leaked document shows Nokia to be rebranded as Microsoft Mobile
Nike lays-off hardware staff in move that casts doubt on future of FuelBand
Greenpeace says save the bees or humans will die
What brands need to know about changes to VAT and online downloads in 2015
Jimmy Savile victims urged to claim compensation in new ad campaign
UKIP launches biggest  ad campaign and stirs up 'racist' accusations
Apple boss Tim Cook provides voiceover on ad touting firm's renewed green commitments
John Lewis walks consumers through its history to celebrate 150 years of business
Waitrose boosts content strategy with 'Weekend Kitchen with Waitrose' C4 tie-up
Hottest virals: Cute puppies star in Pedigree ad, plus Idris Elba and Fruyo
Amnesty International burns candles to illuminate new hope
Toyota achieves the impossible by calming angry Roman drivers
Tom of Finland's 'homoerotic' drawings made into stamps
YouTube reveals user habits to appeal to 'older' marketers
Ex-M&S marketing chief Steven Sharp consulting at WPP
Wolff Olins reveals new CEO after Apple poaches Karl Heiselman
Glasgow offers £30,000 prize to best digital idea for 2014 Commonwealth Games
Google's revenues surge but shares drop as it grapples with transition to mobile
Facebook beats Twitter to most 'marketing friendly' social media site crown, says DMA
Fableists believe children like Finn should be outdoors enjoying life
Homebase, Baileys and Camelot join the line-up at Media360
MasterCard renews Rugby World Cup sponsorship to push cashless message
Lynx unleashes £9m 'Peace invasion' campaign
Social Brands 100 Youth: Pizza Hut most social youth brand in UK
Cheryl Cole is wild and arresting in new L'Oreal work
Morrisons told not to show alcohol ads during YouTube nursery rhymes
O2 head of brand Shadi Halliwell departs after 23 years at company in restructure
Tesco hit by further sales decline as it turns to digital Clubcard and social network