McDonald’s golden opportunity in Russia

In Russia, wearing a rainbow flag pin will land you in jail.

In Russia, two men cannot hold hands because they could be beaten to death — not necessarily by neo-Nazi skinheads but by ordinary citizens. You can’t be caught talking about “nontraditional sexual relationships” in Russia for fear of being fined up to the equivalent of $31,000.

This is the very real climate of persecution in Russia as a result of President Vladimir Putin’s sweeping — and dangerous — anti-gay propaganda law.

Good thing there isn’t anything important happening there soon, like a worldwide convergence of athletic talent in Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympics. It’s safe to say that some of those athletes will be gays or lesbians. I can practically guarantee that several of them will not be silent about their orientation, either — nor should they.

It’s a toxic mixture of intolerance with extremely high visibility that must be hugely unsettling for a major sponsor of the Olympics, such as Oak Brook-based McDonald’s Corp. If that weren’t enough, McDonald’s will get a reminder of this challenge right outside its headquarters tomorrow afternoon, when an LGBT rights group protests the company’s involvement in the Olympics and urges it to pull its sponsorship.

Don’t tell me it’s business as usual at the Golden Arches. There’s no way it can be.

Yet, I see an enormous opportunity for McDonald’s: Tighten the screws on the Russian government to repeal a law that, in turn, might prevent a catastrophic incident at the Olympics. In doing so, McDonald’s takes a true leadership position that extends far beyond billions of hamburgers sold.

We’re talking about an iconic brand going on the offensive and using the platform of the Olympics to cause a bullying, oppressive government to back down. It makes a worldwide statement. And I don’t mean the kind of carefully worded statement put out by its company spokesperson.

A stretch, you say? McDonald’s may be the only company in the world with the leverage to make this happen. First, it’s sponsoring Sochi to the tune of $100 million. With that kind of backing, it could be called the McOlympics. Second, let’s remember how much money McDonald’s is spending in Russia to establish and maintain its restaurants, as well as the 150 stores it’s going to build in the country over the next few years.

Dealing with rights violations head-on with Mr. Putin isn’t just a moral imperative for McDonald’s — it’s a business imperative to protect its investments, and a brand imperative to protect its corporate image at an Olympics spinning out of control.

Nobody else is ramping up the intensity of conversation. Certainly not the International Olympic Committee, which seems perfectly happy to accept statements from the Russian government that the anti-LGBT law will not affect athletes or attendees in Sochi.

Oh. Well, as long as they said they’d be good, we should believe them. Look, Russians are not going to suddenly play nice. According to a recent survey by Pew Research Center, almost 75 percent of respondents in Russia believe homosexuality should not be accepted.

It doesn’t appear likely that the Olympics would move to Vancouver, British Columbia, as a replacement host city. A U.S. boycott of the Olympics feels even less likely.

So at the end of the day, they’ll probably be in Sochi. But here again is the opportunity for McDonald’s to tell international audiences that it fully supports equality and tolerance. Loud and clear, through traditional and electronic media. It should be educational, bold and inspiring.

In other words, go big or go home.

Will the Russian government tear down ads or block electronic activity from the Olympics’ biggest sponsor and one of its country’s larger investors? Will the IOC oppose this effort (and the very spirit of the Olympics) and ignore the fact that more states and countries are legalizing gay marriage?

They might. It’s still a risk worth taking. And if it does happen, Russia and the IOC look like the bad guys, not McDonald’s.

More than ever, corporations are influencing government policies and — if some have enough of a say about it — who gets elected. But there’s another side of influence, in which the brand does something important to improve the way of life of its community beyond the product or service it manufactures and sells.

For some brands, that community is right around the corner. For McDonald’s, that community is unquestionably global.

It’s easy for brands to slap a logo on everything, issue a statement expressing support for everyone and say how they’re going to stay out of politics. But in the age of social media, when the event you are sponsoring invites deep international scrutiny, you are a part of that uncomfortable conversation whether you like it or not. It lives and grows by your audience on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and more.

Anyone can run the standard marketing playbook by issuing a company press release or reciting a mission statement that hangs in the conference room as proof of its core values.

But a global giant flexing its muscle to enact positive social change that gets talked about for years to come after the Olympics is over and its brand consequently seen in a brave new light?

I’m lovin’ it.

Original post by Dan Gershenson in Crain’s Chicago Business:

3 thoughts on “McDonald’s golden opportunity in Russia

  1. Dan,
    What a bold statement–I love it!
    I wonder if McDonalds will dare to stand up. Wouldn’t that be great? I have shared your article on Facebook and in many groups on LinkedIn. It will be interesting to hear from you on your responses and I will share what I get with you!

  2. Thanks Holly! Overall, in several circles the feedback has been very, very positive. A few people may say that McDonald’s should just keep its head down and steer clear of politics, but again, I argue that McDonald’s is only going to be associated closer and closer with this environment of controversy at the Olympics whether they like it or not as a major sponsor. So it is not purely an issue of human rights and safety but also an obligation to protect the brand. These are the leadership positions we should hope for our global brands to leverage, not run from. Thanks again for sharing it in your circles!

  3. I couldn’t agree more with what you said. You hit the nail right on the head. Someone should take a stand and that someone should be McDonald’s. After all gay people eat at McDonald’s too.

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