Polarisation and Brands.

Polarisation and Brands.

In 2018, gaming brand Paddy Power took a stand against homophobia in football. 

They pledged to donate £10,000 to an LGBT+ charity for every goal host nation Russia scored at the World Cup, where the problem had marred the build-up to the tournament. Influencers ranging from Christopher Biggins to Caitlyn Jenner became Russia fans for the duration of the tournament.

For brands, venturing into a conversation about identity carries big risks. So how did Paddy Power get it right and what are the lessons they learned along the way? Nick Barron spoke to Lee Price, Head of PR & Mischief for Paddy Power, about the experience.

NB: Why did you choose to make tackling homophobia such a big part of your World Cup marketing strategy?

LP: The idea was right. It was as simple as that. We don’t believe in ‘cause-related’ marketing, we believe in embedding causes into our marketing. We wanted a big, bold, earned first idea that would help us ‘own’ the World Cup. We decided this was it.

We had some previous experience of engaging with the issue. Our 2013 ‘Rainbow Laces’ campaign helped to raise awareness of the problem of homophobia in football, encouraging professional players to show solidarity with the LGBT+ community.

Through this work, we had built strong friendships with LGBT+ groups and learned a lot about language and tone. Our earlier campaigns were too coarse and relied too much on shock value. By 2018, the landscape had changed and we had grown up as a brand.

Risk and reward

NB: What were the risks that you anticipated and how did you mitigate them?

LP: We didn’t feel we were being brave at the time, but it was a more high-risk approach than we initially thought. Not least, Russia scored a lot more goals than our trading team had predicted was likely. They won their opening game 5-0 and we ended up donating about twice as much as we expected over the course of the tournament!

The risk we were most concerned about was inflaming tensions in Russia. We worked closely with a UK charity partner [the Attitude Magazine Foundation] to get the story right and ensure that we didn’t make life harder for the country’s LGBT+ citizens.

We were also concerned about upsetting the LGBT+ community in the UK by striking the wrong tone or trivialising the issue. We looked to our partners to help us get the creative right.

NB: What did the campaign do for your brand?

LP: The content performed well across all channels and LGBT+ advocacy groups really supported it, which improved social sharing and engagement rates.

We think long-term about the brand rather than trying to measure the impact of a single spike, but overall, consideration scores have improved. There have been other benefits too – the work has featured everywhere from our recruitment campaigns to internal communications and our parent company’s ESG report.

We lost almost zero customers as a result of the campaign.

Raising the bar

NB: Did taking such a strong stance on this issue raise the bar in terms of expectations of Paddy Power as a brand?

LP: Yes, and we were happy to be held accountable.

We know we’re not perfect, but we believe it’s right to say: “This is where we’re at. We’re working to be better.” If we come up short, we see it as an opportunity to improve, not a threat.

We made a mistake last year, when some of the fan content we promoted included a homophobic slur. We didn’t spot it before we shared it, and we were immediately called out for it by our own customers and employees, as well as LGBT+ activists. We took the offending content down immediately and issued an apology – I hope our work in this area had earned us the benefit of the doubt.

I think it has also raised the bar among our own customers – I see much more self-policing within our social media communities now

NB: What about other social justice issues – do you now feel under pressure to promote other causes?

LP: If we have something credible and interesting to say, we’ll go for it. If we don’t, we won’t. It would dilute the power of our campaigning work if we chased after every issue.

We are always driven by the idea.

Download your copy of 'A Networked Age Guide to Communicating in a Polarised World' here.