Saturday, March 10, 2012

olympic brands: reputation

A rough road...

I’m often looking out for news stories about brands and trade marks in the daily press. Recently an unfortunate one surfaced.

Headline on a story in The Guardian the other day: “Olympic brands caught up in abuse scandal”. If you’re a brand owner who has paid a hefty sponsorship dollar to sponsor a national team or particular athletes or sports at the London 2012 Olympic Games, the word “scandal” is no doubt not one you’d be happy to see associated with your name. In fact, Olympics or no Olympics, this is not a pretty story.

The Guardian article concerns an investigation into conditions at Bangladeshi sweatshops where underpaid and allegedly abused workers, mainly women, make the expensive and high quality sports clothes and shoes sold under flagship brands such as Adidas, Nike  and Puma. The companies have responded, saying that they have regular audits, monitoring visits, codes of conduct and a hotline for complaints.

The organisation War on Want claims that this is not ensuring fair conditions, and has released its own report on the Bangladeshi situation, entitled ‘Race to the Bottom’. A War on Want spokesman described the companies as “soiling the Olympic flag”, which is rather  melodramatic, but he’s mad as hell. Rightly so, if the allegations are correct, and despite all the Codes of Conduct in the world, women in poverty are being slapped, verbally abused, harrassed, under-paid and over-worked while they make runners and Team GB sports clothes.

This is not the only story around about luxury western products being produced in third world sweat shops. Apple (and Microsoft, Dell and Hewlett Packard) have had to fend off similar allegations about inhumane conditions in the factories in China which manufacturer its iPad and iPhone products.

What a disconnect there is here. Big brand companies spend so much money and effort in trying to ensure their brand is recognised as a symbol of trust, reliability, great design and superb quality. And then their business model of cheap production in China and the Third World shows up this symbol for the lie it is. What is wrong with this picture? Aren’t the manufacturing pipeline people talking to the marketing and PR people? Answer: they are now.

But there’s a bigger picture too. It is possible to be in business profitably and maintain decent ethical standards. Isn’t it? Time for some philosophical thinking and ethical leadership.

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