The high profile coverage of Countdown's withdrawal from the Red Cross breakfast programme is a public relations nightmare. Nor is it good for the children at the sixty-one low-decile schools who are likely to go without breakfast once the supermarket's sponsorship, said to be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, ends.
This is one PR strategy that has well and truly backfired. Back in 2007 the NZ Red Cross was calling the liaison "a modern day Robin Hood partnership" as they collaborated to fight hunger in low-income zones. I'd put money on the fact this piece of good news wasn't reported on the front page of the newspapers.
Having worked for Progressive Enterprises, the parent company of Countdown, I have a personal interest in this story and how it will play out. Back in the nineties I worked in the marketing department as the communications planning manager with responsibility for PR, sponsorship and advertising for the various supermarket brands.
There are a few reasons large companies sign up for sponsorship deals. They do it so they can be seen as responsible corporate citizens, with empathy for the markets in which they operate. They also do it from a genuine human desire to help deserving members of our society with some fundamental needs. It's an unpalatable fact that breakfast, taken for granted by most of us, is a luxury in some low-income households.
They also do it because it's an effective way of declining the hundreds of miscellaneous sponsorship opportunities they're offered each year.
"Sorry, but we've already allocated this year's sponsorship budget to feeding the children with Red Cross," is a pretty compelling reason why Countdown won't be forking out $500 and free sausages to the Eketahuna Morris Dancing Society any time soon.
And, of course, related to the first reason, the brands have an expectation that their corporate largesse will generate positive publicity which will in turn create a fondness for the brand which will eventually translate into sales.
Well, that backfired for this supermarket. The net effect of their well-intentioned support has been a healthy dose of negative publicity. With the benefit of hindsight, they'll probably wish now they'd steered clear of the programme.
Indeed, the scale of the programme has changed significantly since 2007. Back then just nine schools were involved. Now it's children from sixty-one schools getting free breakfasts. Countdown management probably took a look at the numbers and decided it wasn't quite what they'd signed up for.
My advice would be for Countdown to reinstate the sponsorship. Knowing the inner workings of the supermarket industry, they're perfectly poised to encourage their suppliers to cover the cost of the donated food - that is, if they weren't already harnessing this power. Mind you, Fonterra and Sanitarium are evidently prepared to step in. Maybe there will still be breakfasts for the hungry children.
But the inevitable losers in this story will be the charities, like Red Cross, who depend on big sponsors for their ambitious programmes. Unless a corporation is prepared to sign up for life they run the very real risk of eventually generating adverse publicity when they withdraw or the agreement ends. That's very bad news for the large charities but possibly excellent news for those Morris dancers in Eketahuna.