Things came to a head just before the opening of the De Beers LV flagship store in London’s Old Bond Street on October 30, 2002. The opening itself had to be postponed due to a lack of diamonds, and, embarrassingly, because activists professionally altered the billboard outside the store by plastering Iman’s face with that of a bushman and replacing the De Beers slogan “A diamond is forever” with a new one in De Beers’ elegant typography that read, “The bushmen aren’t forever.”
Fiona Watson, a representative of Survival International, is cagey about who exactly was responsible for this defacement but the company gleefully posted pictures and a story about it the next day on its website; most news agencies that covered the story lay credit for the episode at Survival’s doors. At the party soon after the Bond street store inauguration, Iman, whose famous visage had been changed from an icon of diamond-studded hope for the sub-continent into a symbol of human deprivation, was conspicuously absent.
The story illustrates the tenuous links between celebrities, high profile brands and low profile causes. More importantly, it illustrates the new challenge that activism poses to the brand manager. Activist groups interested in injustices ranging from environmental destruction to child labor have learned that they gain far more exposure for their efforts by linking them to famous brands than by simply spreading the word themselves.
Brands like Nike, Coke and McDonald’s find themselves embroiled in non-business related controversies that have, at times, garnered more attention from consumers than the company’s own brand initiatives. Some brands, like Ben & Jerry’s and Avon (which, respectively, are involved in save the rainforest work and the fight against breast cancer) have linked themselves to causes successfully and benefited from the association. Those who have been linked to causes against their will, however, often face disaster.
De Beers has denied, time and again, having anything to do with the forced removals of the bushmen in Botswana. In an interview with brandchannel, international marketing director for De Beers LV Jean-Christophe Gandon starts out by reiterating, as he had in a De Beers LV press release posted on the company website, that the company simply decided not to renew Iman’s contract when it came to an end because it “did not want to be limited by using one face” in association with the brand.
Survival, Gandon claims, “jumped on the opportunity to claim victory” when the contract between the two ended, where as the reality was much more mundane. “The contract between an icon and a brand is usually only for a limited period of time,” he says, and it seems Iman’s time had come.
Gandon indicates that in De Beers LV, Survival had found the perfect brand to promote a “very worthy” cause. “But the issue about the Bushmen in Botswana has nothing to do with De Beers selling jewelry. It is about a situation between the government of Botswana and the local population, and it’s not our duty to get involved in such a situation.” He further pointed out that he feels “people who understand the issue,” as well as loyal De Beers LV customers, understand De Beers has nothing to do with [forced removals].”
Gandon further says “Survival used De Beers because it makes their case more sexy. From a marketing point of view, Survival understood that trying to draw attention to De Beers made their cause more interesting to people.”
According to De Beers LV, as a retail subsidiary of the De Beers’ mining operations, there is not a lot it can do to affect change. “When it comes to the reputation of De Beers as far as issues like conflict diamonds and the removal of the bushmen, it becomes a matter of concern of the De Beers Corporation,” says Gandon. “We are not involved in mining. We are retailers who buy diamonds from the market with the guarantee they come from the right sources.
“We are ourselves,” says Gandon distancing his brand from De Beers at large, “and we know we conduct business in the right way: with integrity and respect for others. If we get drawn into an argument with Survival International we have to explain our position in regard to the structure of the De Beers companies and reiterate that the issue has nothing to do with us. Instead, we believe companies have to communicate what they do well to be less of a target for rumors. De Beers is about quality and expertise, and at the end of the day that is stronger than any false claim by a third party.”
Stephen Correy, Director of Survival International, begs to differ. By email, he writes, “We remain convinced that diamonds are the root cause of the evictions,” and refers to a paper on the subject entitled “Bushmen aren’t forever” posted on the Survival website.
According to Correy, the managing director of De Beers mining operations in Botswana informed Survival, it “would not support the concept of indigenous rights in Africa…. [De Beers] now appear to be rapidly backtracking from that position (which would also be a success for the campaign, if true).” Clarifying De Beers LV’s role in the fracas, Correy says, “We limit our concern solely to the role diamonds have played in the violation of bushman rights. We are not opposed to diamonds or diamond mining.”
Correy added that Survival International had targeted “dozens of companies,” in their efforts on behalf of indigenous peoples. And here lies the rub. The people whom Survival fights on behalf of—tribes such as the Mboboro in West Africa, the Amungme in Papua, Indonesia, and the Khanty in Siberia—are faceless to most of the Western world. The brands that the organization targets, however, are extremely high profile, and by making the association between them and the worldwide travails of marginalized tribal groups, Survival makes its cause known worldwide.
Brand managers probably read about the damage to the De Beers billboards and shuddered, but Gandon himself was philosophical about the alteration of his Old Bond Street billboard, which made the newspapers across the world. “It’s very hard to say [if the activism has done harm to the brand]. This type of thing is hard to measure.” Yet, it seems, at least at first blush, that activism against a brand on behalf a good cause, be it the rights of a downtrodden people or a virgin rainforest, must do damage to the brand.
Kalle Lasn is founder and self-proclaimed “creative mastermind” behind Adbusters.org, a notorious online resource for anti-branding efforts on the part of political activists and a group Lasn refers to as “mental environmentalists”: people who are tired of the amount of brand imagery they are confronted with on a daily basis and who are prepared to do something about it. Made famous by Naomi Klein in her best-selling anti-brand book No Logo, the “jams” within Adbusters’ pages attack well-known brands ranging from McDonald’s to Coke to Ralph Lauren. Yet Lasn admits that he had personally spent “years in the ad game,” and thus knows branding from the point of view of an insider. His main efforts are now centered around promoting exactly the same kind of brand activism that Survival appears to have spearheaded against De Beers.
Lasn says that the “billboard liberation” of De Beers on Old Bond Street represents “the lowest form of culture jamming,” mainly because it only reaches a “few thousand people.”
“It’s the most ineffective kind of activism because it’s not much good to either side,” he says. “By and large it’s just not much for anyone to worry about.” In fact, Lasn points out, “some managers actually like it. Their brand is actually enhanced by jammers’ paying attention to it, and it gives them a kind of ‘rebel edge.’ ”
The liberation of the De Beers billboard, according to Lasn, is indicative of “the never-ending cat and mouse game [between activists and branders] that has gone on for years.”
The real activism against brands, from Lasn’s perspective, are activities designed to discourage stars like Iman to “sell their souls” to big brands. “My mission,” he says, “is to make it increasingly uncool for celebrities to sell themselves to these corporations.”
As far as Iman is concerned, Lasn says, “She was fighting for the wrong side. Increasingly, political radicals have more and more celebrities coming out of the woodwork to support them.” He hopes that anti-branding efforts worldwide as well as celebrities supporting good causes outright will make it harder for an icon like Iman to become the face of a major brand like De Beers for “just a few million dollars.”
“By doing this, people will see they are being inauthentic prostitutes for the ad industry.” Lasn says, adding a final warning aimed at brandchannel readers: “Tell them this: we’re coming after you, watch out!”
Iman herself did not answer emails requesting an interview during the researching of this story. She has been thrust into the center of what seems to be the changing, and very risky business of branding, where being the public face of a major brand makes you just as susceptible to the company’s enemies as the company itself. Survival claims that her final words on the subject came in an April 2004 interview with the British based magazine Radio Times when she reportedly said, “It was clear that the Bushmen were being destroyed—you take people from their element and you end up with AIDs, drugs and alcohol in the guise of advancement.”