With the topic of businesses and political neutrality hitting the headlines recently, our latest guest blogger Ruairi O’Shea, examines the precarious topic.
On Saturday, Mesut Özil – a German footballer of Turkish heritage who plays for Arsenal – posted a message on Instagram to his two million followers drawing attention to the persecution of the Muslim Uighur population in the north-western Xinjiang, criticising Muslims for not doing more to highlight the issue.
Arsenal immediately distanced themselves from the comment, reiterating that it is apolitical by stating that “The content published is Özil’s personal opinion. As a football club, Arsenal has always adhered to the principle of not involving itself in politics.”
If only Arsenal had been reading our articles on the subject, they’d know by now that as the centre ground disappears and individuals at the extremes of the political spectrum grow further apart, the ‘middle’ becomes less satisfactory to a growing number of consumers. Since 2016 we have been exploring and monitoring the rise of Political Brands – political engagement by businesses seeking to exhibit authenticity and create meaning. Past examples of brands leaning in to more politically charged times and politically aware consumers include Nike and people like Colin Kaepernick, Raheem Sterling and Megan Rapinoe. These athletes have moved the conversation on a particular issue and been subsequently backed by their sponsors.
Arsenal have done the opposite of that – not just failing to support Özil but effectively hanging him out to dry. It didn’t help that the club didn’t feel the need to comment when another of their players, Hector Bellerin, made their feelings about Boris Johnson clear in imploring young people to vote in last week’s election. Clearly, the comments of both players were political, but while Bellerin’s drew relatively little attention, Özil’s have seen his image removed from the club’s website, his Chinese fan club has been shut, and the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV removed Arsenal’s match with Manchester City from their schedule.
However, the Arsenal/Özil example is not just another example of commercial organisations struggling with these new rules. This case signifies a possible reimagining of this trend and the way politically charged branding works in the global village.
This is not the first time this has happened to a sporting entity seeking to build a relationship with China. In October, Daryl Morey, the manager of the Houston Rockets, tweeted in support of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, causing CCTV to pull every NBA game from their schedules; three months after the tweet, the network still isn’t showing NBA games.
The reason is not the message, but the target; you can speak about politics, but for businesses seeking to develop relationships with the largest market of consumers on earth, you cannot mess with China. China is an incredibly important emerging market for Premier League football clubs and for Arsenal in particular, who have numerous commercial interests, including restaurants in the country, and it’s clear that these have been badly jeopardised by Özil’s Instagram post.
With technology, it’s said that there is a Brussels Effect; the EU is the largest trading block on earth, and as emerging economies recognise the requirement for certain regulations, they adopt the EU’s regulations in order to make trading easier. Eventually, the EU’s regulations become so widely used that businesses and organisations have no choice but to conform with the EU’s way of doing things whether they’re based in Europe or not.
As businesses seek to engage with hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers, we could see a similar effect emerge when it comes to branding, with businesses unable to afford messaging that could alienate China. Increasingly, Brands in the Age of Trump could become Brands in the Age of Beijing.
Ruairi O’Shea is an Analyst at Trajectory, a consumer insight and foresight consultancy. email@example.com
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