When the Los Angeles Rams run on the field this month against the Detroit Lions and New York Giants, one of their official sponsors, Wells Fargo, may be more than a distraction. In the context of attacks on Wells Fargo from Capital Hill and the California Treasurer, the LA Rams could surprise everyone by embracing rather than distancing their corporate partner.
Wells Fargo signed on as the Community Player of the Week sponsor in early September, which includes recognizing a LA Rams player and a Wells Fargo employee for their excellence in community service. The second largest U.S. bank by market capitalization is also offering LA Rams branded debit and prepaid card designs to customers as part of welcoming the team back to Los Angeles.
Although most cases of terminating sponsorship deals due to transgressions involve sponsoring brands letting athletes or teams go, the LA Rams could draw lessons from the pressure applied to Nike by the United Students Against Sweatshops, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and most recently Georgetown University. Nike has faced continued pressure related to workers’ rights in their factories, which has placed lucrative collegiate sponsorship and licensing deals at risk.
Should the LA Rams decide to walk away from Wells Fargo, they could expect to gain some positive brand associations, especially from fans negatively impacted by Wells Fargo’s alleged illegal practices. Wells Fargo is already paying $50 million to the City and County of Los Angeles, and paying restitution to affected customers. Given the excitement the team has generated in the market, they shouldn’t struggle to replace Wells Fargo with another financial services brand.
The research on responding to sponsorship-related transgressions, however, points to another approach the LA Rams could take. Strategically, the team could use the crisis Wells Fargo is facing to strengthen their partnership with the bank, while positioning the move as beneficial to fans. Customers who are negatively impacted by brand failures often seek justice from the offending company, in the form of distributive justice, procedural justice, and interactional justice. Distributive justice refers to whether customers feel that the remedy put in pace is fair given the transgression. Procedural justice relates to the fairness of the policies and procedures involved, while interactional justice refers to the perceived fairness of their interactions with employees. At a time when some would suggest the LA Rams distance themselves from Wells Fargo, a more prudent strategy could be to extend their sponsorship to directly benefit Wells Fargo customers in Los Angeles.
With ethics being front and center of the anger against Wells Fargo, the LA Rams could design a sponsorship activation to recognize and reward local bank employees who LA Rams fans nominate as demonstrating highly ethical behavior. This sponsorship activation could be positioned as part of the remedy Wells Fargo has publicly committed to, thereby influencing the distributive justice customers are seeking. Regional bank officials, rather than corporate spokespeople, should lead this initiative; with trust being rebuilt one branch at a time. Home game tickets and special player access for the relevant Wells Fargo employees and LA Rams fans may be an appropriate incentive, and reinforce the role of quality relationships in financial services retention. In this way, interactional justice may also be positively influenced.
Ignoring the public debate about Wells Fargo’s serious breach of customer trust may be easier for the LA Rams corporate partnerships team. Releasing a statement expressing disappointment with the actions of some at the bank may be expected. Doing the unexpected and actively helping Wells Fargo recover from their current difficulties may the smartest play for the LA Rams.