A Post-mortem on the NBA China Scandal

February 26, 2020

A Post-mortem on the NBA China Scandal

February 26, 2020

Group Gordon’s Andrew Jarrell looks at the limitations of purpose- and values-driven marketing.

I love the NBA.

The league, more than any other professional sport, has embraced diversity, leaned into player empowerment, and demonstrated an openness to new ideas and perspectives. Adam Silver, the beloved commissioner, is smart and methodical. He reminds you of a 2008 Obama, dutifully considering all of the facts to arrive at the wisest course of action.

Basically, I feel good about myself when I watch the NBA, unlike the itchy feeling I get when tuning into the NFL. I hide my football fandom from my progressive friends like a bad birthmark.

The feelings I’ve developed towards the NBA are exactly what makes a successful brand in 2020. You are expected to represent not just a product, but a purpose, a set of values. In fact, a 2018 study our firm conducted found that 64% of respondents believe it is important that their favorite companies and brands have political stances that align with their own. When my uncle throws on his favorite Patagonia sweater, he’s not just telling the world that he loves an overpriced pullover. He’s telling us (somewhat obnoxiously) that he’s passionate about the environment and conservation.

But there are also pitfalls to “purpose-driven marketing,” the buzzword of the year in marketing and communications circles. There are inevitably moments when the bottom line conflicts with a company’s espoused values. And the more good that a company does, the more people will expect.

To navigate these risks, brands need to be intentional about what they stand for. They need to pick the one or two issues they are truly willing to put their reputations – and more importantly, their earnings – on the line for. And they need to stay away from the issues where they cannot go the distance.

My beloved NBA failed to heed this lesson. When Daryl Morey, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets, faced backlash from China for a tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters, the NBA felt compelled to articulate some type of support for freedom of speech.

But here’s the problem: the league is not willing to jeopardize its global expansion. And as the world’s most populated country, China is the crown jewel.

In trying to balance its values with business interests, the NBA pursued what can only be described as a clumsy middle ground. They tried to have their cake and eat it too. What came out was mush.

The league’s first official statement acknowledged that Morey’s remarks “deeply offended many of their friends and fans in China,” but asserted that it “support[s] individuals’ educating themselves and sharing their views….” Oh, and they have “great respect for the history and culture of China.”


Unsurprisingly, pundits at home and every major Democratic presidential candidate criticized the NBA for a lukewarm defense of freedom of speech. The Chinese government also expressed “strong dissatisfaction and opposition” to the statement. To be clear, the NBA was in a no-win situation. No matter what they did, they would have received criticism by China for not taking a stronger stance against Morey, and by commentators at home for not doing enough to defend him. But when you are a multinational business with interests across the globe, you’re never going to please everyone. You can’t expect to be seen as right by everyone on every issue.

And this is the point for companies that want to stand for something. When you align with certain values, yes, you can engender tremendous good will and brand loyalty. But you also shine an enormous spotlight on yourself. If you stand for gun control, criminal justice reform, or freedom of speech – you better be consistent on those issues and prepared for the costs, as well as the benefits. People will forgive you for not taking a position when you can’t. They will not forgive you for patting yourself on the back and then coming up short.