This article titled “A PR stunt mixing beer, politics, gay rights and religion: what could possibly go wrong?” was written by Joshua Robertson, for theguardian.com on Thursday 16th March 2017 19.05 UTC
The launch of an early candidate for the business PR disaster of the year seemed, on the face of it, fairly innocuous.
A press conference in Adelaide hosted by Tim Cooper, the managing director of Coopers, the largest Australian-owned brewer, and Greg Clarke, the chief executive of the Bible Society Australia, was laden with bonhomie.
Unveiling a special edition of 10,000 cans of its Coopers Premium Light Ale to mark the 200th anniversary of the Bible Society, Cooper brushed off the idea that the promotion would have a negative response.
“No, I don’t think so. I think people know that we support a number of different causes and they might surprised to know that we are happy to support the Bible Society,” Cooper said in the video.
“But I think you know, all of us face choices in life and at some point in time we need to make a very important choice as to whether we believe in Jesus Christ and we have to make a decision whether we are going to follow his ways or not. And you know, the opportunity that this provides maybe just for a handful of people is always a meaningful thing in terms of supporting not only the Bible Society but in terms of getting the message out there.”
The labels featured Bible verses and the message: “Live light: Happy 200th birthday to Australia’s longest-living charity, from Australia’s longest-living family brewery. Bible Society 1817-2017.”
“Coincidentally, the slogan for the Bible Society is ‘Live Light’, so the choice of Coopers Light for the celebratory can made elegant good sense,” Cooper said.
But as it launched the anniversary campaign, the Bible Society also unveiled a bizarre video conversation between a supporter and opponent of same-sex marriage in Australia. Andrew Hastie and Tim Wilson, both from the ruling Liberal party, argued their cases (Hastie: against, Wilson: for) in a panel discussion with Coopers Premium Light prominently displayed. The host Matt Andrews, urged opponents in the debate – one of the key unresolved issues in Australian politics – to “keep it light”.
Andrews then led a toast to the Bible Society – “keeping it light for 200 years”.
The Bible Society, which opposes marriage equality, said on its website that it had “teamed up with Coopers Premium Light to ask Australians to try ‘Keeping it Light’” in a national conversation now “fraught with shallowness and contempt for those who have a differing opinion”.
On Saturday, three days after the video’s release, the hashtag #BoycottCoopers began appearing on Twitter. Accusations flew that the brewer was aligning itself with “homophobia” and nailing its opposition to marriage equality to the mast.
On Sunday a number of hotels in Sydney and Melbourne began threatening, or even vowing, to stop selling the beer. One, the Old Bar in Melbourne’s Fitzroy, said: “It’s a sad day for us as over the many years we have built a strong relationship, yet after recent events it is very obvious that our values are at odds.”
Coopers’ public response was prompt but seemingly confused.
At first, it defended the “Keeping It Light” video as a “light-hearted but balanced debate about an important topic within Australia”. “Coopers isn’t trying to push religious messages or change your beliefs by celebrating 200 years of charitable work undertaken by the Bible Society.”
Hours later, it sought to distance itself from the video in a second statement. “We want you to know that Coopers did not give permission for our Premium Light beer to feature in, or ‘sponsor’ the Bible Society’s ‘Keeping it Light’ video featuring Andrew Hastie and Tim Wilson,” it said. “We would like all Coopers fans to know that we support and embrace all of our beer-drinking community.”
That was just a prelude to their final, more abject statement issued, it said, “in support of equality and diversity”. In a video message that quickly drew comparisons with the stilted apology by Johnny Depp and Amber Heard for bringing their dogs into Australia, Cooper and his corporate affairs director, Melanie Cooper, announced that the cans were being canned and the beer was off. The video was being axed too. With halting delivery, an ashen-faced Cooper said the brewer was “incredibly saddened by the impact our involvement with the Bible Society has had on our valued Coopers drinkers and our extended family”.
Melanie Cooper said the brewer was “deeply sorry” for the offence taken.
They added that the company was going to join the hundreds of other firms that had signed up to the Australian Marriage Equality campaign. Tim Cooper said the firm supported marriage equality and “recent activity surrounding the video made by the Bible Society has conflicted with our core values”.
“Coopers never intended to make light of such an important issue, and would never and did not approve the making or release of the Bible Society video ‘debate’.”
The Bible Society said in a statement on Thursday it was “totally understanding of Coopers’ position and we respect Coopers’ decision, particularly after the events of the last few days”.
“We remain grateful for our friendship with Coopers and for their support of our work,” he said. “We’re sad and sorry that a conversation (not a debate or an argument) on an important issue for our community has provoked such a flame war.”
The Hollywood Hotel in Sydney, which had been “reassessing its relationship” with Coopers, said it would now continue to sell its beer as the issue had been addressed.
But Wilson and Hastie were dismayed.
The furore engulfing Australia’s third-largest beer seller was “simply absurd”, according to Wilson, who said it proved the video’s point about the need for more civil disagreement. Wilson told News Corp he was “disappointed Coopers appears to have distanced themselves from a sensible conversation that they should be proud to align themselves with”.
Hastie told the ABC he had been advised the Bible Society had pulled it down “after receiving legal advice from Coopers” and if true this was “a really bad precedent”. It was “a bit disingenuous [for Coopers] to suddenly distance themselves” from the video, and its response to backlash set “a really bad precedent” for civil discussion.
A Bible Society spokesman confirmed that “Coopers asked us to remove the video”.
“They are long term friends and donors of Bible Society Australia and we’re committed to our relationship with them.”
The Bible Society had made the video as part of a campaign to celebrate its bicentenary, after Coopers “paid tribute” by releasing the commemorative cans on the same day as its anniversary on 7 March, the spokesman said.
While both MPs saw concerning implications in Coopers’ capitulation to public pressure, some public relations experts were shaking their heads at what they saw as a doomed marriage between a brewer and an evangelical Christian group.
Industry analysts doubt whether Coopers will suffer lasting damage to its bottom line, but say it highlights how easy it is for consumers to ditch a brand they see as clashing with their core values when an alternative is at their fingertips.
Coopers, the largest Australian-owned brewer, has 4.7% of the country’s beer market. But that share has grown, with revenue close to a quarter of a billion dollars, according to industry analyst IbisWorld.
The family-owned company’s mission statement includes support for charities that foster “family and community support based on Christian values”, has been a longstanding supporter of the Bible Society. It has donated to the Liberal party, too.
Patrick Macdonald, the managing director of Ballistics Marketing & Communications, said Coopers’ backflip now meant it had put both sides of the marriage equality debate offside. “I know it’s early but I’m calling it: it’s the PR disaster of 2017,” he said.
Macdonald, who has led marketing for Wesfarmers-owned hotels nationwide as well as the Pride Business Network, said there was no easy way out for Coopers. The brewer’s best option was to review the terms of product placement in its support agreement with the Bible Society and call it to account if necessary.
Cole Lawson’s managing director, Margaret Lawson, said it was a curious choice for a beer brand to pair with an evangelical Christian group in the first place, and the risk of that partnership coming apart should have been apparent.
“Coopers is now in a public relations crisis, and the point is you shouldn’t allow it to get to crisis mode,” she said.
But Coopers, by decisively trying to reposition itself on marriage equality, had done what it could and – barring any further developments – would likely see the damage fade “in the next few news cycles”, Lawson said.
Sara Agostino, an alcohol industry analyst with Euromonitor, said she doubted Coopers would see lasting impact on its bottom line given its “positive response” to consumer complaints. She said another Australian brewer, CUB, had increased its share of the beer market “quite significantly” in the past year despite being subject to a union-led boycott over industrial relations issues.
The impact of that boycott was “hard to quantify” given CUB had bought up new brands.
But it was evident in sales in major city bars frequented by “millennial consumers [who] in particular like to wear their values on their sleeve and vote with their wallet, with their purchases reflecting their core values”, Agostino said.
The Coopers imbroglio – like the #grabmywallet campaign against Ivanka Trump’s products in the US – showed how ditching one brand for another in a crowded marketplace was “an easy protest to make”, she said.
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