BRAND WITCHCRAFT: How brand partnerships can be toxic

A successful brand becomes part of the consumer’s culture and values, behaviour, attitudes and social identity.

I recently spoke to the CMO of a well known global digital brand who saidinternally we need to put our consumers’ world at the core of what we do”. Rightly, he realised that they could design mobile products and services that complimented the culture of their consumer. Cultural factors are key to determining where a brand sits in their consumers’ cultural ecosystem and how successful they are.

Brands fail drastically if they do not work hard to understand consumer culture: they need to be constantly in the ‘cultural pulse’ of their consumer. But a brand’s identity can be crushed if they partner with brands that have values that are toxic. As a business anthropology, my view is that toxic brands carry a negative spirit that works to devalue their consumers and other brands that it partners with in order to profit.

The UK the payday loan company, Wonga, announced a loss in profit of £37m. They have received little sympathy from the public and press. Years of eye-watering profit margins achieved by paring the promise with easy money with high rates of interest meant that they developed mountains of gold. Wonga became a powerful wealthy bulldozer which, for some brands, has become a financially attractive proposition to form partnerships with.

The most visible brand partnerships that Wonga has formed are with two English professional football (soccer) teams; the English Premier League teamNewcastle United and the ex-Premiership team Blackpool FC (now relegated from the Championship ). Both teams’ ethics were questioned by fans and in the media when their shirt sponsorships were announced. Papiss Cisse, one of Newcastle United star players, threated to cover Wonga’s logo on his playing shirt due to the conflict between his religious beliefs and the values of Wonga. Yet, both clubs have remained firm in order to reap the financial rewards.




However, this season (2014/15) the two clubs are in free fall on the field and in relation to their attachment with their fans. In recent weeks both set of fans have organised numerous protests against their owners and have refused to attend games.

On the face of it, these acts of protest are aimed more at the perceived incompetence of the owners of both clubs than Wonga. However, it is worth not ruling out out the influence that the spirit of Wonga is having at these clubs misfortune. Traditional anthropological writings focused on how misfortune in a society or to an individual could be rationalised by claiming witchcraft was the cause . In other words, the reason this misfortune is happening to me is due to witchcraft. Although this theory has developed and been challenged in modern day anthropology, it still helps us rationalise that the source of these clubs’ misfortune is symbolically aligned with their association with Wonga. Like witchcraft, Wonga has harmed the brand identity of each club. Fan anger is directed at the owners but the owners of each club are themselves under the power of the toxic brand values of Wonga (financial gain over nurturing fan loyalty). The result is that the identity and values of each football club have been polluted.

Wonga will no doubt react to their loss in profit by repositioning its brand to lure new consumers into taking out loans. But, what about Newcastle Utd and Blackpool FC? To the delight of Newcastle Utd fans, their manager left the club and joined Crystal Palace FC, another Premiership club, as their new manager. Crystal Palace FC are now having one of their best seasons in history, while Newcastle United are sliding into the abyss of a relegation battle. The Newcastle fans have turned on their controversial owner, Mike Ashley. Blackpool FC have already been relegated to League 1 with a depleted squad, terrible financial hardship and low fan moral.

Both teams need to find a ritual of purification to bring their brands into their fans’ world and values. This is not easy but the first step is both the most obvious and hardest – New owners that put the fans at the heart of their clubs.