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"It doesn’t sit well with us": Coopers carries the can for marketing meltdown

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Embattled South Australian brewer Coopers has refused to publicly estimate the financial impact of a widespread boycott on its products, after the company last night took the extraordinary step of apologising to offended customers and pulling its Bible Society commemorative cans from sale.

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It’s understood Coopers representatives have been meeting with concerned Adelaide vendors as the brewery yesterday went into belated damage control, in the midst of an escalating campaign that had seen at least one local venue – and several interstate – join a “Boycott Coopers” campaign.

The stance was prompted by the company’s involvement with Australia’s Bible Society, of which it is a longtime sponsor. Coopers had planned to release limited edition commemorative cans quoting Bible verses to celebrate the group’s 200th anniversary. But the furore escalated after the society released its own advertising campaign, in which Liberal MPs Tim Wilson and Andrew Hastie debated marriage equality over prominently-positioned bottles of Coopers Light – positing the message that such debates should be “kept light”.

Iconic Adelaide gay and lesbian nightclub the Mars Bar publicly posted that it would stop serving Coopers products once existing stock had been exhausted. Other venues interstate went further, posting videos of the company’s stock being binned.

InDaily asked the brewer, through its public relations firm Corporate Conversation, how much distribution had been cancelled to date and the projected financial impact of the boycott.

However, the company had nothing to add to a filmed statement it released last night, in which it apologised for its involvement in the furore and revealed it was cancelling the Bible Society commemorative cans and would “take steps to show further support for our community, including joining Australian Marriage Equality”.

Coopers’ director of corporate affairs Melanie Cooper insisted the brewer “supports marriage equality” and had always been supportive of diversity and encouraged individualism.

“Offence has been taken by our recent involvement, for which we are deeply sorry,” she said.

“We have listened to a range of community views, we acknowledge this feedback and respect everyone’s individual opinions and beliefs.”

It’s unclear what immediate impact the backflip will have, after two earlier statements by the company – the first defending the Bible Society campaign and the second attempting to distance Coopers from it.

Bible Society CEO Greg Clarke said in a one-line statement today the organisation “entirely respects the decision made by the Coopers Board and is grateful for their support over many years”.

But despite the insistence yesterday of Australian Hotels’ Association SA boss Ian Horne that local operators were unlikely to join a boycott of the homegrown brand, at least two venues are today considering their position.

The Wheatsheaf Hotel today said it remained uncertain of its response, while Grace Emily publican George Swallow told InDaily late yesterday the city pub was “still processing what’s going on”.

“We were very disappointed with the advert – it doesn’t sit well with us and our customer base,” he said.

Swallow said he was “still trying to get as much information as we can” and would “sit down and have a chat with Coopers to get their side of it directly”.

“They’ve been very good to us over the years,” he noted.

Swallow said he had spoken to “a few” fellow hoteliers but “haven’t heard of anyone else in SA” joining the national boycott.

That appears unlikely to change after the company’s mea culpa, which prompted Sydney activist James Brechney – who pioneered a Change.org campaign to boycott Coopers “until they support Marriage Equality” – to toast victory.

“I myself enjoyed a Coopers last night,” he said today.

“I’m absolutely thrilled with Coopers’ response [and] we look forward to seeing what they do with Australian Marriage Equality,” he told InDaily.

“I think we have to take them at face value – they’ve come out and said they support marriage equality, and I think that’s fantastic.”

National marriage equality campaigner Ivan Hinton-Teoh, from Just.equal, also welcomed Coopers’ “demonstrated commitment to civil debate and to reaching across traditional divides”, saying the company had “responded appropriately to an outpouring of frustration at the unnecessary delay to marriage equality”.

“Many LGBTIQ people and our allies are frustrated that marriage equality is taking so long and want commitment to reform rather than protracted debate,” he said.

“We strongly encourage Cooper’s to celebrate the bicentenary of the Bible Society in a way that does not combine the very separate issue of marriage equality.”

In the short term they will suffer some pain… it looked like they were taking sides

The company’s managing director, Dr Tim Cooper, said in the video statement that he, the board and senior staff were “incredibly saddened by the impact our involvement with the Bible Society has had on our valued Coopers drinkers and our extended family”.

“As a longstanding philanthropic company, Coopers Brewery has been passionate about supporting all aspects of our community, and has actively and financially embraced many different organisations.

“Our company’s guiding principles have centred around respect for others, and, as such, the 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’.”

coopers

A scene from the Bible Society video.

But questions remain about the ongoing impact of the marketing own-goal, with the company refusing to answer whether any of the venues that joined the boycott have since lifted their ban.

Dr Cullen Habel, an Adjunct Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Adelaide Business School, told InDaily the company was in “almost a no-win situation”.

“It’s like when you have two friends at a party that don’t like each other or don’t agree with each other – keeping the peace involves not taking anybody’s side,” he said.

And he said that, albeit inadvertently, Coopers had transgressed a golden rule of marketing.

“Every company is servicing an – our word is ‘heterogeneous’ – market, which means customers of all types… you run a really huge risk of offending a large chunk of that customer base,” he said.

“Sometimes companies can have a real win with their chosen group of customers by making a statement, but often there’s more danger to be had by making a political stand than there is a possibility of having a win.”

Habel predicted “in the short term they will suffer some pain”, having wedged both marriage equality advocates and opponents.

“Their objective was more about promoting civil discussion and debate, but it very quickly moved to looking like they were taking sides,” he said.

“Coopers didn’t necessarily do this, but an important rule is if you’re targeting a particular segment, you don’t want to do that at the expense of offending other segments.”

He likened the furore to the infamous annual Australia Day lamb ads, which last year targeted meat eaters “but offended the vegan segment by inflaming their bowl of kale”.

“There’s a danger that by really appealing to one segment, you may be offending another,” he warned.

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