The 2014 Winter Olympics is an opportunity for brands to promote their products globally. However, a controversial Russian law passed in June 2013 banning propaganda related to “nontraditional sexual relations” — as in anything in support of gay rights — where minors are present, make it imperative for brands to examine their messaging throughout the Games.
In February, 40 human rights organizations called on sponsors to act out and urge Russia to end its discrimination and threats toward the LGBT community. Human Rights Watch released a graphic video containing violent scenes of harassment in Russia to highlight the seriousness of this problem. As a result, the international gay rights group — All Out — organized demonstrations against the Olympic sponsors to urge them to take a stand against the law.
Two of the Games’ top sponsors, Coke and McDonald’s, garnered reams of unwanted press after gay rights activists criticized their campaigns, going as far as to hijack their #CheerstoSochi hashtag and use it as a platform to protest Russia’s new anti-gay laws. Coke and McDonald’s tried to avoid controversy by staying out of the debate, instead triggering a backlash against their brands.
So, the question remains: How do brands navigate the Sochi Games in light of the ongoing controversy?
There are two main approaches that could be taken toward this problem. One, brands could avoid the conversation completely (as Coke and McDonald’s did). Or two, brands could take a stand.
In the case of most companies, it appears it’s no longer a risk for U.S. brands to support a pro-gay stance. If companies were more forthcoming — conveying their support for human rights and equality — they may avoid the problems Coke and McDonald’s did. For example, AT&T actively spoke out against these Russian laws, resulting in more positive attention than any of the Olympic’s major sponsors have received thus far.
Brands must be forthcoming and proactive in situations such as this. Large brands can not avoid current events, especially in cases where they are at the forefront of conversation. They can’t simply avoid the issue. Instead, they should engage with the community and show they are listening — not just talking.
What do you think? What could Coke and McDonald’s have done differently? What can brands learn from their mistakes?