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Brunei, boycotts and bursting the brand bubble

By 10th April 2019 No Comments

10th April 2019

Brunei, boycotts and bursting the brand bubble


On both a personal and professional level, it was fascinating to witness the power and influence of social media over the last week, in response to Brunei’s introduction of a new law punishing homosexuality and adultery with the death penalty.

A viral campaign, led by celebrities including George Clooney, Elton John and Ellen DeGeneres, to boycott the nine hotels owned by the Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei – one of the world’s richest heads of state, worth around $20 billion – quickly gained momentum. Eight of the hotels have deleted their Twitter profiles, and six of the hotels have either deleted or deactivated their Instagram accounts.

Other brands reacted too. Deutsche Bank outlawed staff from staying at any of the hotels owned by Brunei, while Transport for London removed Brunei tourism adverts (which feature the nation’s official title – ‘the abode of peace’ – ?). The TV Choice awards, several major property companies and the Financial Times were among those cancelling events at the Dorchester in London, and the English National Ballet and the Make-A-Wish Foundation said they would be reviewing their associations with the hotel.

Meanwhile, the Dorchester Collection group has a notice on its website saying: “Inclusion, diversity and equality are the foundation of Dorchester Collection. We understand people’s anger and frustration, but this is a political and religious issue that we don’t believe should be played out in our hotels.”

It goes on to add: “Our values are far removed from the politics of ownership.”

As a gay man, this is a completely unsatisfactory response. As a communications professional, this smacks of short-sightedness and a total failure to understand what a brand, and its values, represent.

I appreciate that the employees working for the nine hotels owned by the Sultan are caught in the crossfire. And an article in PR Week put forward the argument that some believe the backlash against these companies are an unfair overreach that punishes innocent business and will have little impact on the kingdom’s leadership.

But my two cents? LGBTQ+ rights are human rights. Striking Brunei where it will hurt – its economy – offers the best chance of realising genuine change.

However, Brunei joins 11 other countries where same-sex relationships can be punished by death. This includes Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Mauritania and parts of Nigeria and Somalia, according to the BBC.

Saudi Arabia is amongst these too. The oil-rich Gulf state, owns stakes in an extensive range of high-profile hotel groups via various sovereign wealth funds. This includes Fairmont Raffles Swissotel, Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts and Accor. It has also invested billions of dollars into Silicon Valley start-ups, such as Uber, Snapchat and Twitter.

Will the Brunei boycott be the start of greater awareness and collective activism around holding countries, states and brands to account for their actions?

As I said in a previous blog, consumers will increasingly base brand loyalty and purchasing decisions on whether a company’s values and reputations align with their own morals. More and more so, the question is becoming: ‘What is the cost of not weighing in on political, economic and social issues?’

As a consumer, there is power in where you spend your money.

Over to you.

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