CNN’s Lou Dobbs conducted a poll tonight on this question:

Do you think it’s irresponsible for companies bailed out by taxpayers to spend millions of dollars naming sports stadiums?

As of late this evening, 93% of people voted “yes.”  I’ll discount that a bit, assuming that the kind of people who are attracted to Dobbs’s least-common-denominator pandering populism would be more likely to vote against anything that big, bad businesses do.

So I don’t really care about the answers; they don’t surprise me.  It’s the question itself that interests me. It assumes these sponsorships are a waste of money. And, as described on the show by guest host Kelly Pilgrim, it assumes that the only reason for putting your name on a sports stadium is to stroke the corporate ego.

Generally, I’m not a fan of these kinds of sponsorships. (Although it’s worked out well for the Wrigleys and the Busch family.)   But, to me, the real question is: Do companies who receive bailout money have a responsibility to be extra-smart with how they invest that money in attracting and keeping customers? Or … Do all companies have a responsibility to their shareholders and employees, in this economic climate, to be extra-smart about how they invest that money in attracting and keeping customers?

My cousin, economist Peter Yastrow, asked a rhetorical question yesterday: Do you cut your capital expenditures or advertising in this situation? My answer was that if you phrase it that way, cut the advertising.  But if you ask, Do you cut back on investments in capital improvements or investments in building customer relationships, it’s a completely different question.

One of the most important investments companies can make in this economic crises is in strengthening their customer relationships. The more discerning assessment of this question asks not if you should spend money on marketing, but if you need to be smarter about it.  If that’s the question, I’ll vote with the 93%.

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