Good business?

good business bw blog

The role for business, on the Cabinet Office flier on the Big Society, is modest and relatively feasible: protect the environment, improve skills and create jobs, support your community, improve quality of life and support small businesses… – no mention of sponsorship, very wisely. There’s also no mention of public private partnerships either, a concept which emerged in the early 90s but which has generally struggled to demonstrate value to the public.

Public private partnerships were designed to create an alternative to the public procurement process. Their meeting place with sponsorship: supply rights. Just as the supply rights value of some sponsorships is capable of generating a net surplus for the sponsor, PPP offered assets and long term service contracts which would ultimately render the investment profitable.

But there’s an interesting link. Steve Hilton, widely acclaimed as architect of the Big Society, was long before that architect of a sponsorship theory which went, and still goes, by the name of Good Business. The thesis is laudable and increasingly relevant: that businesses can help the triple bottom line of profit, people, planet by using the power of their brand to effect social change. Hence, Nike making anti-bullying cool is probably the book’s pivotal case study. Good Business was way ahead of its time…

The downside is its relative lack of scalability. For a start, very few brands, for example, have the appeal, the ambassadors or the reach of a Nike to address anti-bullying. Secondly, anti-bullying could never be a mainstream brand platform for long: it fails to meet the double R gold standard of reach and relevance for a general consumer audience. Thirdly, although good corporate citizenship is generally a positive trait – piety isn’t. By all means, embrace positive values within your brand, but venture into social marketing at your peril.

Fourthly, and this is the killer, there are major issues about audience. There are very few brands which publicly target a C2DE audience. Even if that is the market, brand imagery and language shoots higher. Butlins looks like Centre Parcs and Center Parcs looks like a bijou resort on the Italian lakes. Aspiration is the unwritten law of marketing.

And that’s one of many problems with sponsoring libraries. Ignore the fact that, without a FIFA equivalent, the idea of a national sponsorship programme is hard to achieve. Disregard the fact that, with the very role of the library so fundamentally challenged by the internet and the generally democratic creep of digitisation, the big bold brand statement made by sponsoring libraries risks being: long live nostalgia. Skirt around the fact that sponsorship could not make even the tiniest dent in the running costs that Local Authorities are trying to reduce. Most libraries – and here’s a sweeping generalisation – serve the old and the disadvantaged. Whichever way you want to run the numbers, this is not a target audience which is likely to persuade simply enormous brand investment.

The only businesses genuinely capable of integrating their product and service offering into libraries – technology businesses – will ultimately get paid to do that anyway. And the only businesses with the will to make the scale of investment required to bring about systemic change in a single market are, by and large, very strong domestic hero brands – of which we have none, in the technology space. Deutsche Telekom’s campaign to ‘bridge the digital divide’ has translated into massive investment into schools in many of its operating markets, bringing both broadband and hardware. But this campaign is solid CSR, driven by corporate values.

An unwritten rule of sponsorship: sponsorship is neither subsidy nor investment. So far as sponsorship and libraries is concerned, if there’s any business case to be made, it’s likely to remain local: a showcase for pioneering technology here, the (very) occasional naming rights deal, the major local employer commitment to its community there. So far as sponsorship and Big Society is concerned, ditto.