IBM proved an effective social change agent back in 1990, when it pulled its TV advertising from the PGA Championships that were being played at an Alabama club that only allowed members that were white. The club changed its policies and Augusta National, home of the Masters, soon followed the same path and admitted its first black member.
Bloomberg News observes that IBM now has the power to make change again, as one of the three main sponsors of the Masters at the now-80-year-old Augusta, which has faced escalating criticism in recent years for not allowing women to join. (Martha Burk, anyone?) IBM, of course, named a female CEO, Virginia “Ginni” Rometty, back in January.
“The company’s CEO traditionally dons the club’s signature green member blazer at the tournament, as do the CEOs of co-sponsors Exxon Mobil Corp. and AT&T Inc.,” Bloomberg noted. “IBM will have to decide whether to keep spending the money if its CEO lacks equal status with other sponsors.” In the end, Rometty attended -- wearing a pink jacket, not a green one.
Augusta National Chairman Billy Payne ducked questions of when the club was going to admit women. He made sure to say all of those types of details are private and decided on by the entire (male) membership, Bloomberg notes.
Hayes Roth, chief marketing officer for global branding and design firm Landor Associates told Bloomberg: “It’s a huge opportunity for both organizations if they seize the high ground on it. But telling Augusta people what to do is tough,” he said. “Rometty has a business to run. She is not going to go out and make this a personal cause.”
The question, of course, is whether IBM is helping or hurting its brand by being involved in the event. “The Masters is a great place for IBM to do corporate hospitality and it’s a great showcase for its technology,” said Jim Andrews, senior vice president of corporate-sponsorship consultant IEG LLC, according to Bloomberg. “But are you running a risk of offending a number of your customers, especially now that more women are in CIO and CTO roles? It’s a tough equation.”