About to launch his line of branded merchandise, Jay Z’s retail partner Barney’s became embroiled in controversy, accused of racial profiling. According to reports, in separate incidents, police stopped and questioned two black customers who’d just purchased items at the luxury retailer and left the store.
Barney’s conducted an investigation and found that no employees were involved in the police officers’ actions. Jay Z refused to back out of his deal with the retailer — though he gave himself an out pending the investigation — which brought him pressure and lots of criticism. The rapper responded by increasing the cause marketing tie, contributing 100% of the proceeds (up from the originally planned 25%) to his charity, the Shawn Carter Foundation, which provides scholarships to college bound students who face economic hardship. Barney’s would donate 10% of all sales of the merchandise on its launch day.
The two ultimately did move forward with the marketing of the merchandise, allowing both enterprises to tap into the $7.8 billion celebrity merchandise market. A recent New York Daily News report notes that the merchandise generated more than $1 million for the Shawn Carter Foundation.
Whether you’re on the sponsor or sponsorship seller side of the equation, what can you learn from the Jay Z and Barney’s partnership?
It’s more important than ever to choose your partners wisely. News, gossip, opinion, and firestorms surface instantaneously, and there’s no telling which sound bite will turn into a global meme. The 2012 Olympics in London heralded a turning point. Brands that had sponsored the games for decades were suddenly lambasted as inappropriate for the athletic event.
Be sure your partners fit from a branding, values, and philosophical perspective — besides all the right reasons from a marketing perspective.
At the same time you select your sponsors with great care, remember that you can’t know everything. Today’s global brands have tentacles around — and above (I’m writing this in a Virgin America flight high above the United States) — the earth. It’s impossible to be omniscient. Thus, the chances that your partnerships will raise red flags somewhere, at some time, is inevitable.
To not have a communications game plan plan in place with your partners should controversy arise is a mistake. Avoid being blindsided by planning accordingly.
How will you address controversy? What are the steps you’ll take? Who will represent your organization? Who needs to be told what information?
In the case of Barney’s and Jay Z, Barney’s responded swiftly with an investigation, and Jay Z responded with a calm, non-reactionary response, deferring judgment. The two entities’ thoughtful responses revealed a high level of trust between partners.
Collaborate and really partner.
According to a Philadelphia Inquirer article, Jay Z responded to fans and the public with important messages:
For Jay Z’s part, an online petition and Twitter messages from fans forced him to make a statement on his website Life + Times Saturday: “Making a decision prematurely to pull out of this project, wouldn’t hurt Barneys or Shawn Carter, but all the people that stand a chance at higher education.” Some proceeds from sales of the collection will help provide scholarships to needy students.
Jay Z, who said he’s “no stranger to profiling,” added, “Hopefully this brings forth a dialogue to effect real change.”
If Jay Z and Barney’s can and will use their influence, dollars, and celebrity to help tear down centuries-old racial barriers and help rid our culture of the ill effects of racial profiling and discrimination, that’s reason enough to purchase Jay Z’s merchandise at Barney’s. Imagine the possibilities with your partners.
Choose your partners creatively.
While the Jay Z and Barney’s partnership appears to be all about bling, it’s also an interesting pairing around demographics. When we partner with companies, organizations, events, or celebrities that may not seem to fit the cookie-cutter, delightful surprises can occur. Barney’s is a brand long associated with luxury and New York’s Upper East Side. Jay Z is about urban youth and diversity. What a mash-up! And what interesting outcomes can emerge for both partners when a sponsorship or partnership rooted in sound strategy also surprises.
What else inspired or informed your work collaborating with or sponsoring organizations or entities from this example?