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Advocates and ambassadors: the new front line for corporate activism

By Andrew Adie
16 January 2020
Green & Good (ESG and Impact)

By Andrew Adie

Poor Roger Federer. In the past, he was revered as a snappy dressing, uber courteous, tennis titan. That all changed this week when a group of activist investors claimed he was in fact a bit ‘oily’.

Not a criticism of his famous ‘nice guy’ image but a reference to his role as brand ambassador for Credit Suisse which is being pressured to divest from fossil fuels.

Images of student protestors playing tennis outside Credit Suisse’s HQ with banners saying ‘Credit Suisse is destroying the planet. Roger do you support them’ was bad enough. Then Greta Thunberg started tweeting support and it was game, set and match for Federer.

Federer issued a statement saying he ‘[took] the impacts and threat of climate change very seriously’ paid tribute to youth climate activists and promised to ‘use his privileged position to dialogue on important issues with my sponsors’. But in reality, it all felt a bit desperate.

Are Credit Suisse really going to take Roger Federer’s advice on climate change? It seems unlikely. In truth, he is a lever that is being pulled by climate change activists to pressure the sponsoring company. If he stays on board and continues to take the money as brand ambassador his personal brand will begin to tarnish.

If he quits then it looks like he failed to do enough due diligence and assumes some level of responsibility for, indirectly, supporting the fossil fuel industry.

You could argue that Roger Federer is blameless in this and is unfairly being placed in the cross hairs. Investing into the fossil fuel industry has become toxic but the reality is that most of us reading this blog will drive cars, rely on home deliveries and use products made of plastic.

The fact that we need to change our behaviour is all too obvious but can we really demonize celebrities and advocates who act as endorsers and ambassadors for brands?

Actually I think the answer is ‘yes’. The ESG (Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance) movement isn’t just predicated on a desire for sustainable behaviour, good governance and social purpose, it’s also reflective of a wider societal desire for authenticity.

If you’re going to act as a brand ambassador (whether that’s as a highly paid sports star glad-handing contacts at corporate events or a blogger endorsing make-up or clothing) you need to actually live and breathe what you are saying.

Roger Federer may back Credit Suisse across its broad commercial operations but becoming an ambassador requires more. It demands that you defend the brand, act as the advocate and represent the views of the business to the outside world and the outside world’s views into the business.

If the role is not that then it is puff and those taking positions as corporate ambassadors risk being pulled into negative as well as positive news stories. As an alternative, merely being sponsored by a brand reduces some of this risk – but doesn’t remove it completely.

As the climate change movement and activists grow in power, as their voices grow in urgency and as their numbers swell then more brand ambassadors will find themselves on the front line. That’s a risk for them but also for the corporates that employ them.

While the Credit Suisse action may have tarnished the Federer brand, his association has also amplified the damage to Credit Suisse. The volume of coverage and easy headlines have turned what would have been an embarrassing piece of activist censure into a global news story. Which was clearly the (very effective) point of the exercise.

As we see more brands looking to align themselves with best practice ESG, most recently seen through BlackRock’s high-profile letter to CEOs calling for them to place ESG at the heart of their corporate strategy, then the brands and the celebrities that align themselves with them need to consider whether they stand up to scrutiny and whether they can defend themselves against all that ESG means in the glare of the media spotlight.

In a world when authenticity is king, queen and everything in between, sponsorship decisions need to be made on the basis of aligned purpose, not money.

Photo by Todd Trapani on Unsplash