Brand Reinvention & Crisis: New Winners In The Cause Marketing Game

We are certainly in challenging times even for an industry that was deemed “recession proof” for decades, but even in the early stages of this crisis we are seeing innovation and reinvention and empathy on a daily basis.

Whether it is Cristiano Ronaldo donating a million Euros to Portuguese hospitals or Karl Anthony Townes stepping up to put his dollars into research–while his mother is stricken and struggling with COVID-19–or any number of teams and leagues donating supplies and dollars to first responders with either products or straight out cash, the outpouring of support is both needed and growing.

Just Friday, we saw two former University of Pittsburgh athletes who have gone on to have successful careers, former basketball captain Pat Cavanaugh and current Los Angeles Rams star Aaron Donald, donated over $100,000 worth of product from their Come Ready Nutrition brand to that city’s Allegheny Healthcare workers.

Aside from the traditional assistance, we have also seen several companies quickly pivot to reallocate manpower, marketing dollars and technology to literally reinvent their businesses in this critical time.

Case in point is Fanatics, whose founder Michael Rubin had an early morning epiphany to take thousands of yards of unused cloth for replica jerseys and repurpose that material into creating masks at a shelter-at-home-idled Philadelphia plant.

Sister companies Bauer and Cascade are refitting hockey and lacrosse production lines from helmets to different head protection–desperately needed protective visors for healthcare workers.

New Balance, having just pledged $2 million for coronavirus relief efforts on Tuesday, announced on Friday the company has produced a prototype mask at its Lawrence, Mass., facility and is working to scale production across the company’s New England factories.

Then, you have a massive sports partner like Anheuser-Busch re-directing sports and entertainment budget to the American Red Cross, using its plants to instead manufacture hand sanitizer and rolling out an inspirational ad campaign dubbed “One Team” (clip below), and you can see this reinvention for cause continues on every day.

“Before we got to the current crisis we were seeing brands devote more and more time and dollars to cause marketing and social responsibility, but the current state of the industry has seen the area accelerate as companies literally reinvent themselves to go to help what’s needed most,” said Harrie Bakst, co-founder of WCPG, a New York-based firm which helps brands, athletes, the entertainment business and leagues reinvent and manage their cause and social responsibility programs. “What Bauer and Fanatics have done is really revolutionary and forward thinking, and is probably just the start of what we will see companies doing in the coming weeks if there are chances to help flatten the curve with an evolved product.”

Bakst pointed out that a growing number of American consumers, especially those under 35, are looking to brands, and in some instances, leagues and teams and properties as well, to be more socially conscious and not just include messaging in their outreach, but to show a tangible return in the community.

What just a short time ago could be considered “feel good marketing,” has quickly transformed into life-altering solutions as the crisis moves along.

“I don’t think last week people would be looking at Fanatics and saying ‘there’s a company that can help save lives of the nurse on my block,’ but their leadership calmly and effectively saw a need and an opportunity to reinvent themselves quickly, and they went form being on the sidelines to being on the positive side of the battle,” Bakst added. “It didn’t just make the employees feel good, it reassured their purpose for working, and that too was really important to all as well.”

When New Balance announced on Mar 28, 2020, they were moving to scale production of their mask prototype, they shared this imageNew Balance

Cavanaugh, whose Pittsburgh-based company is becoming a fast growing competitor in the healthy nutrition space, saw the opportunity to divert dollars from marketing budgets to fund the shipment of vital drinks and nutrition bars to first responders in the Steel City, something they also did last year in L.A. to support firefighters during the Wildfire crisis in California, where Donald (who became a Come Ready partner and investor last year) plays.

“The tireless efforts seen at AHN and across all health organizations in Pittsburgh and beyond are truly heroic. We couldn’t be more honored to contribute to their work and we’re so thankful for their service to the community. As we like to say to our team: together – always together,” Cavanaugh added on Friday.

The feel good nature of social responsibility can’t also be downplayed in these challenging times and that resonates with every level of team business. While a growing number of team owners–the most recent include Vincent Viola (Florida Panthers) and James Dolan (New York Knicks, New York Rangers, Madison Square Garden, etc.), with Dolan announcing Saturday that he has tested positive for COVID-19–have pledged support to their part time and full-time workers who are facing uncertainty as Apr 1 comes at us quickly and bills start to pile up.

Still some, like Boston’s Jeremy Jacobs (Boston Bruins, Delaware North and TD Boston Garden), have chosen to forgo payments, a move that may backfire down the line when brand loyalty will be at a premium.

“Acting correctly and positively is just smart leadership, and we are seeing now who leads and who doesn’t.”

“We see more and more that people will support brands, and even teams that are both spending and acting in ways that support a greater good, and now that support is more important than ever before,” Bakst added. “Unless you are in the room when decisions are being made you never really understand the mindset, but one thing is for sure, if you are one of the have’s and aren’t working to help the have not’s it is going to circle back around when disposable income is again available, and that holds true whether you are a multibillion dollar business or an owner of a professional sports team. Acting correctly and positively is just smart leadership, and we are seeing now who leads and who doesn’t.”

We are in a world right now where winning and losing goes way beyond game results, and in many cases, bottom line results for mature companies as well as teams and leagues.

In times of crisis like this, innovation and leadership rise up, and those at the highest levels of sport are looked at to aspire higher.

It is also an interesting time of accelerated cause marketing Bakst finalized, and the “new normal” that emerges may see traditional marketing more intertwined with social responsibility than ever before.

“Many of the clients we talked to last week were not looking back, they were looking forward, because now more than ever consumers want to align with the best in class who were looking beyond the bottom line,” Bakst said. “We have talked for years about the time when value of a brand will be weighted even more on what is done beyond the sale, and this current crisis seems to be pushing that idea ahead, which frankly may be one of the positives that can arise out of this. Winning and losing in the community may actually be more important than on the field in the near future. Who realizes that and acts now? We seem to be finding out more every day.”

Correction: In the original version of this story we incorrectly noted the Jacobs family as owners of the Boston Celtics. They own the Boston Bruins and not the Celtics. TMR regrets the error.