adidas drops the ball – big time

Good on Rebel Sport, Briscoes and Whakatane Sportsworld for taking a stance on the rugby jersey price issue. While adidas’ reaction to public outrage over the fleecing of Kiwi rugby fans has been little short of Kafka-esque to date (referring all local media enquiries to adidas HQ in Germany, who then promptly refer the calls to adidas in NZ), the emergence of a sympathetic stance among local retailers has been refreshing.

adidas’ initial reaction to the pricing criticism was typical of a large multinational for whom public relations is simply an ancillary publicity function bolted onto the marketing department. Instead of sympathising with the long-suffering Kiwi consumer or even attempting to explain why All Black jerseys are available elsewhere for about half the price in they are in New Zealand, adidas New Zealand’s country manager David Huggett told us his company would put the hard word on international retailers selling into New Zealand for violating their cross-border retail agreements with adidas.

To add insult to injury, Huggett then suggested Kiwis should put up with being price-gouged out of loyalty to New Zealand retailers.

Now, thanks to the stance taken by Tony Bonne of Whakatane Sportsworld and Rod Duke, general manager of Rebel Sport and Briscoes, adidas looks set to ride this wave of totally avoidable bad publicity for days to come. In fact, this is the lead story in today’s New Zealand Herald.

There’s no two ways about this: adidas has stuffed up a great opportunity to make thousands of Kiwi sports fans feel really good about the brand.

There’s no two ways about this: adidas has stuffed up a great opportunity to make thousands of Kiwi sports fans feel really good about the brand.

So why was the adidas NZ public relations machine asleep at the wheel at the launch of the All Blacks’ RWC strip – arguably one of the most important moments in this trading year? I really don’t think I’m being unfair here – even a half-decent Q&A document or issues forecasting session should have flagged pricing as a potential minefield. But Huggett’s answers to the obvious questions demonstrated clearly that these hadn’t been anticipated or prepared for.

What happened? Did adidas simply fail to think beyond the ‘publicity’ envelope? Was local PR advice either sought or ignored? Is adidas one of those organisations where public relations is relegated to picking up crumbs from the marketing table; where pricing and public relations are viewed as two totally different and unrelated discussions? Or do they simply not give a stuff, in the belief that their product will sell regardless – either now or after the event, when it’ll be discounted by 25 percent and they’ll still make a handsome profit?

To me, this whole episode has thrown up a handful of really obvious “should’a dones” (and no, it’s not 20-20 hindsight. Even a little grossly impaired foresight might have helped avoid the mess this thing has made of the adidas reputation here in NZ). Here’s my little list: feel free to add a few more…

  • think local; act local. Effective public relations is about understanding the needs, views, concerns and sensibilities of the local community. Whether you’re a gazillion-dollar multinational sponsoring a national sporting icon or a franchise operator moving into a new territory
  • fail to prepare; prepare to fail. Don’t be blinded by the razzamatazz. If you’re planning a high-profile launch or sponsorship event, pay as much attention to managing the potential down-side as maximising the potential up-side
  • give PR a wider rein. Don’t restrict your public relations function to a shallow ‘publicity’ remit. It’s actually about creating and protecting relationships; it should be encouraged to run rampant and poke its nose into every aspect of your organisation’s operation. Make sure it has meaningful oversight of every element of the marketing mix
  • stop drinking the Kool-Aid; keep it real. Your audience are real people with real emotions, not some anonymous ‘group’ on a spreadsheet. Ditch the corporate and legal mumbo-jumbo and communicate with them in language and about stuff that will actually mean something to them. Especially if you’re forced into defending a position
  • sponsorship is not an easy win. It’s a double-edged sword. Done well it’s a joy to behold and be part of. Done badly it can alienate the very people you’re wanting to reach. Learn how to do it really well in a way that not only raises your profile but also fosters a sense of loyalty to your brand

As for Mr Huggett’s call for NZ rugby fans to show loyalty to local retailers, all I can say is that loyalty – like reputation – is a hard-won commodity. It’s also a two-way street. Give customers what they want, at a fair price, and they’ll deliver it in spades. Rip them off and it simply won’t be there when you need it.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere for Fonterra, our energy suppliers and other elements of the NZ retail landscape, too, methinks. But that’s for another day…

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