Thought leader: The important difference between greenwashing and transitioning for sponsor brands

20230827_16405320230830_16453820230831_161759Debate surrounding greenwashing through advertising is continuing as French energy company Total Energies comes under scrutiny as a sponsor of the Rugby World Cup.

Sports sponsorship properties provide increasingly unique fanbase reach, especially through experiential activation. The demand to get access to these fanbases as a sponsor should be high. But sponsor supply is also challenged nowadays the fans expect brands that already match their lifestyle and the sport’s health expectations.

Far gone the days of cigarettes on motor cars and sports that replaced that revenue with alcohol and gambling are heavily scrutinized.

Player power is stronger than ever. If Ronaldo believes that Coke isn’t it, then he will cover the brand and tell you to drink water. If retired Australian rugby player David Pocock says of TotalEngergies “you can’t sponsor us unless you have a legitimate decarbonisation plan, and you are transitioning your business”, then the sport is bound to listen.

When the Sommet Mondial de Trail, the World Series Finals of my own sport at Chamonix this August the Green Runners petitioned against headline sponsorship by car firm Dacia. Called UTMB (Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc), UTMB week was relabeled DUtMB by The Green Runners for selling out to a greenwashing programme.

I wasn’t so sure, at first seeing the petition as a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. Dacia is, to borrow Pocock’s word ‘transitioning’ with more hybrid and electric vehicle options. UTMB’s PR proposal for Dacia coming to the Alps was all about car-pooling. I felt it should be given a chance.

I was wrong. Nonsensically, Dacia did nothing avert to engage with this outdoors and sustainability-keen audience bar showing its hybrid Jogger vehicle alongside its tents and a few posters with unsubstantiated eco words on them.

Dacia’s own website pays the vaguest of lip service to values including ‘eco responsibility’ that it shares with UTMB.

Its website tells us with studied banality “In the automotive world, Dacia heads off the beaten track and is expanding into the outdoor activities sector. This partnership with UTMB World Series offers everyone a new way to enjoy connecting with nature through trail running.”

20230831_162435A poster game I played along with on the stand seemed to merge a picture of the car’s red rear light  with that of the majestic mountain.

“Oh, it looks like the car has completely replaced the glacier on Mont Blanc in the picture” I managed to look suitably awed… “Yes, that’s right,  it looks fantastic,” said  the brand rep.

I’m fluent in French, but obviously my irony was lost, and so is the planet if this outlook goes on.

I have no idea why Dacia has chosen to sponsor UTMB if not to better understand its eco-future market. It could sell Jogger cars at caravan shows.

20230901_14444320230901_144908Worse, the event, UTMB, had now put Dacia all over its merchandise and these were personalized with participant names (including mine) in a mosaic of tiny letters on the back. The main merchandise shop was shutting at 2pm on Friday in spite of the main event, that concluded on Sunday not having started yet. There was plenty of merchandise unsold. “Would it go to landfill” I asked. It would be recycled, I was told, but there was no more information on that.

As many participants are anxious not to buy merchandise ahead of an event that they may not complete, this early closure seemed very short-sighted.

At the Expo I had looked and looked for information about carpooling. I didn’t find it.

It would have been nice if UTMB had at least pushed back against Dacia in return for changing its own name and brand to accommodate them.

It would also have been nice if Dacia would be able to justify its investment by using these committed trail running countryside lovers to inform its own eco-transition.

As it stands Dacia has gone to a lot of effort to sell a few Joggers and tents and UTMB has incurred the wrath of many of its lead participants. The Green Runner’s petition has been signed by all-time great Killian Journet. Newspaper Le Monde’s main take on the extraordinary races was the sponsorship annoyance shown, including by people from the  Alpine villages that proudly host the race and its aid stations.

Its headline alone read: “The UTMB celebrates its 20th anniversary amid environmental controversy.”

UTMB is such a glorious event. Its playpen is one of the grandest operatic sets in all of the natural world…

Sports marketing is at a crossroads. So many businesses have gleaned their historical success at the expense of environment. Brands and events need to have a clear strategy in place, in particular during green transition, to show how a sponsor is moving to meet the key expectations of its lifeblood, its fanbase and its participants. Otherwise, the event owner is watering down its brand value on behalf of a sponsor who is going to make limited impact, a lose-lose relationship at events where everyone loves a winner. As a proposal, that definitely isn’t sustainable.





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