Corporate Reputation and Cause-Related Marketing in Professional Sports: The Case of Devon Still and the Cincinnati Bengals

By Nichols, Bridget Satinover; Gardner, Jennifer | Sport Marketing Quarterly, September 2017 | Go to article overview

Corporate Reputation and Cause-Related Marketing in Professional Sports: The Case of Devon Still and the Cincinnati Bengals


Nichols, Bridget Satinover, Gardner, Jennifer, Sport Marketing Quarterly


Introduction

It was August 2014, and the Cincinnati Bengals were finalizing their team roster for the upcoming National Football League (NFL) season. Twenty-five-year-old Devon Still, an All-American defensive tackle from Penn State University, was about to be cut from the team when his 4-year old daughter, Leah, was diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer. Wanting to help, the Bengals found a creative way to provide Devon with the medical benefits he needed for his daughter's treatments, and also to support their plight to fight the disease. The Bengals launched a cause-related marketing campaign to sell Devon Still Bengals jerseys exclusively through their team-operated pro shop. It was uncharted territory for the small organization and a lot was riding on its success, including their volatile corporate reputation. Despite their good intentions, the jersey campaign was laden with risk, particularly as it pertained to their brand image.

The reputation problems primarily reflect the team's owner, Mike Brown, who is repeatedly named as one of the "worst" or "most despised" sport franchise owners of all time (Lund, 2014; Nachman, 2011; Real Clear Sports, 2014). The criticisms revolve around his style of management (namely his refusal to hire a general manager), continued support for head coaches like Dave Shula, whose record of 19-52 disgruntled Bengals fans (Gallo, 2013), and for signing and supporting players with multiple encounters with law enforcement (e.g., receiver Chris Henry was arrested five times in his tenure with the Bengals, and 10 others were arrested in a 14-month time span). As of 2016, the Bengals are the only NFL team without a player hall of fame, ring of honor, or any formal tribute to former players (Skinner, 2016), adding to fans' contempt with Brown. While tarnishing, even these instances are overshadowed by what is called "the worst stadium deal" in sports history, referring to the Bengals' agreement with city officials to finance Paul Brown Stadium, where the Bengals play (Albergotti & McWhirter, 2016).

The problems with player conduct, in particular, was a major driving force behind Brown's decision to participate in the 2009 and 2013 seasons of "Hard Knocks," the HBO television series that documented the team during training camp. According to Brown, he agreed to do the show in the hopes it would change the image of the franchise and the way the Bengals do business, and to give viewers a more intimate look at the players who received so much negative attention (Associated Press, 2013). But even Brown knew that altering the public's perception would be a process, stating that "it takes time to get a unit of guys that are solid people, and it takes longer than that to make the public see you in that light" (Associated Press, 2013, para. 10).

Troy Blackburn, the executive vice president, and Monty Montague, the team's pro shop merchandise manager, took charge of the jersey fundraiser. Though their primary goal was to help Devon and Leah and make pediatric cancer research a top-of-mind issue, they also knew that cause-related marketing programs are capable of enhancing brand image (Lachowetz & Gladden, 2003) and generating revenue for the firm. One problem with this dichotomy of benefits is the potential for consumers to perceive revenue generation as the primary goal for the organization, rendering the cause effort as insincere (Becker-Olsen, Cudmore, & Hill, 2006), and potentially harming the company's reputation. Another issue is that many firms lack adequate experience in strategizing and executing cause-related marketing efforts, making them a risky venture if something goes wrong. For the Bengals, these issues were complex. They had no experience managing and executing cause-related marketing campaigns, and they had limited manpower in terms of staff employees who had time to dedicate to the endeavor, but wanting to support Devon and Leah, they were convinced it was the right thing to do. …

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