TAMPA — The parade of major U.S. brands abandoning the Los Angeles Clippers is fast turning into a stampede, leading crisis communications experts to conclude that it’s not debatable whether the NBA pressures team owner Donald Sterling out of the game.
The question is whether the NBA can oust him quickly enough — and believably enough — to contain the damage to the sport of professional basketball.
CarMax, Virgin America, State Farm and other companies cut sponsorship ties with the Clippers on Monday after audio recordings turned up online that appeared to show Sterling denigrating black people in general and NBA icon Magic Johnson in particular.
In protest, Clippers players wore black arm bands and black socks for a game Sunday and team coach Doc Rivers said he might not want to return next year to play for Sterling.
And so, like Paula Deen, Tiger Woods, Carnival Cruise Lines, Lance Armstrong and even the NSA have found recently, in America, a gold-plated brand can turn into a bonfire in a matter of hours — and only a few can survive a nationwide backlash of derision, said David Johnson, CEO of the public relations and crisis communications firm Strategic Vision of Atlanta.
“I think Sterling is dead as can be as far as a brand,” Johnson said. “When the employees won’t defend your brand, or they show disrespect, and the sponsors either bail or talk of bailing, you’ve reached the point of no return ...
“With the NBA, this problem is overshadowing the whole playoffs, and if they did know of his past comments, and they did nothing, they’ll now look like hypocrites.”
Social media has only enhanced the explosion of such scandals and accelerated the downfall of the offenders, Johnson said. There’s almost no way to recover, particularly when a great deal of money is involved and the brand in question relies on other high-profile, consumer-oriented brands for support, he said.
“CarMax finds the statements attributed to the Clippers’ owner completely unacceptable,” the company wrote in an email to the Tribune. “These views directly conflict with CarMax’s culture of respect for all individuals. While we have been a proud Clippers sponsor for 9 years and support the team, fans and community, these statements necessitate that CarMax end its sponsorship.”
The airline Virgin America issued a similar statement, saying “While we continue to support the fans and the players, Virgin America has made the decision to end its sponsorship of the L.A. Clippers.”
Financial firm LoanMart posted a statement on its Facebook page, saying “LoanMart is suspending our advertising and sponsorship activities for the Los Angeles Clippers for the time being and will continue to monitor the situation for further developments. We want to emphasize our continued support for the Clippers players, coaching staff and fans during this difficult time.”
Major sponsor State Farm said it was “taking a pause” in its relationship with the Clippers, and automaker Kia did as well.
Not every brand can survive such a disaster.
Celebrity chef Paula Deen still struggles to recover from the sponsors and business partners distancing themselves from her after a employee lawsuit claimed she made a string of racist comments.
Major retailers pulled her products from the shelves almost immediately. That collapse happened rapidly, Wilson said, because Deen’s entire business relied on the personal appeal of herself as the brand.
Lululemon founder Chip Wilson damaged the brand of the yoga-wear company, Wilson said, after he gave an on-camera interview in which he said Lululemon yoga pants didn’t work for women whose thighs exerted too much pressure and friction.
In a brand sense, the National Security Administration is still suffering the worst of a brand disaster after former employee Edward Snowden revealed the agency’s extent of wiretapping around the world and in America — turning that brand from one of a protector to Orwellian overlord.
Both FedEx and UPS recently suffered black eyes when video emerged of drivers carelessly throwing boxes. Carnival Cruise Lines suffered mightily when several ships broke down at sea, leaving passengers to suffer at sea for days with a toxic environment of darkness, heat and built-up sewage.
Those incidents didn’t doom FedEx, UPS or Carnival because, in a public perception sense, they didn’t seem to reveal the true nature of a CEO or a company, Wilson said. Rather they were vivid aberrations, and thus fixable.
People don’t presume every FedEx driver throws boxes over fences.
Allen Adamson, managing director of research firm Landor Associates, said there’s little benefit for brands to stick with the company.
“There’s some benefit in moving quickly,” Adamson said “You can always renew your sponsorship later, but the longer you’re linking your brand to a brand in trouble, the higher the risk.”
In the case of the Clippers, Wilson said, it may be Magic Johnson who emerges victorious because of the interest he expressed in owning the team — and the NBA’s need to engineer a transfer.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect city as headquarters for Strategic Vision.