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Creators Versus Distributors: What Happens When Brands Can No Longer Rely on Their Content?

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, technology is completely altering the relationship between ‘creators’ and distributors – and it is doing so in a way which is empowering the independent agency of creators, while leaving those companies that focus upon the distribution of their work increasingly scrambling to justify the ROI between content provision and monetisation.

Principally, technology enables precision: precision in consumer choice, resulting in super-niches; precision in revenue tracking, enabling higher per-stream rates for  music artists (for example); and precision in communication, where an athlete no longer needs to go through their coach, league representative, and a TV operator to make an officially sanctioned statement but can rather tweet about whatever they like all by themselves from the comfort of their sofa (or the bench beside a game) – and have it reach just as big, if not a bigger, audience.

The implications of this are obviously varied and manifold, but inevitably involve some conflict. Fast-forward to the Houston Rockets, Tencent, Nike and China.

In July, the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Chinese tech conglomerate Tencent announced a five-year extension of their existing partnership, with Tencent acting as the NBA’s official digital partner until the culmination of the 2024/2025 season. According to the Wall Street Journal, the deal was worth $1.5 billion, over double the amount Tencent paid for the previous five-year contract. The NBA growth story in China took off when the Houston Rockets drafted a 7-foot-6 Chinese athlete from the Shanghai Sharks of the Chinese Basketball Association, Yao Ming, in 2002. Yao’s arrival drew 200 million people to view his first game, and subsequently the Rockets brought two preseason games to China in 2004.

This basketball-themed happy ending was, however, not to last: this October, the Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for the Hong Kong protests. After the tweet – and the support for Morey’s “freedom of political expression” by NBA commissioner Adam Silver – Tencent stopped airing the Houston Rockets games and offered refunds to any subscribers who had the matches as part of their plans. Nike has withdrawn Houston Rockets merchandise from its Chinese stores, as have other retailers. Chinese smartphone maker Vivo, the Chinese-state broadcaster CCTV and ANTA Sports Products Ltd. all also have halted cooperation with the NBA.

This is no isolated incidence of political controversy around the playing field. In 2016, Colin Kaepernick kneeled during the national anthem at an NFL pre-season game, protesting domestic law enforcement bias and racial inequality in American society and ultimately sparking months of ongoing controversy and discussion. He was forced to leave the NFL but became the face of the Nike advert “Believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything”, which won an Emmy and launched the company into a new era of cultural relevance. However, following the more recent Houston Rockets incident, Nike proceeded to undermine that very ideal it profited from touting, pulling all Rockets merchandise from Chinese shelves and apologising profusely on both sides, making absolutely no stand whatsoever. The fallout of this remains underwhelming, but the instance itself is anything but minor.

More recently still, this week at the World Series game between the Washington Nationals and the Houston Astros, US President Donald Trump – after forfeiting the traditional first pitch ­– was booed from the stands with calls of “lock him up” and “impeach Trump”. He left the game two innings early, and the boo-ings are allegedly still continuing without his presence. As the only interlocutors are disorganised Nationals fans, there is no specific point of fallout – but it is intriguing to see the statement which can be made on such a massive platform in sports, and the naturalness with which the everyday individual can use it to promote their choice causes.

Is it great for a sports network to be involved in politics? For a team? For a business? Evidently no – not unless it’s for an ad campaign that sells well, but is a value easily ignored in practice. Nevertheless, we now run into the phenomenon that a company can build its entire business on the back of a ‘creator’ – be that an athlete, a statement, a team; essentially, the root of the proposition which cannot be manufactured but must be found and cultivated – only to have that same creator suddenly be positioned threateningly, either incidentally due to changing policies (Nike) or deliberately because of the platform the creative recognises their distributor gives them and the greater weight the statement therefore has (the Houston Rockets).

Brands cannot separate themselves from the creators they rely on; likewise, they are increasingly unable to police them into subservience and compliance because of the autonomy and directness of communication which is now the norm. They have three options: continue trying (and failing) to police creators, walking a line that will stray often into dangerous territory; enable creators to have their own separate identities and position themselves as partners but not owners, thus allowing for distinction of message from each (but inevitably losing value and relevance as a result); or actually put in the effort to align corporate values with real-world ones and thus not run into these problems (but be unable to do deals on all sides of an issue).

The choice, while unwelcome for many brands, remains  theirs – and one that needs to be made quickly as we move into an increasingly polarised cultural climate. It is time for leading consumer brands to resolve the current uncertainty and become decisive – to paraphrase an earlier Nike slogan: Just do it.

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