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Can a Global Sports Brand be Ethical and Profitable in the Long Term?

The man who wants to be ‘the Bob Geldof of sport’ is convinced he can do it.

Jaimie Fuller will tell you that it’s possible to build an international sports business that can make a difference and make a profit. The straight-talking Australian is Chairman of Skins, which makes compression sports clothing, and is also increasingly making an impact with campaigns – a creatively and strategically daring mix of marketing, advertising and crusading – against sport’s faltering global governance and prejudicial behaviours. Anti-doping campaigns launched by Skins in 2012 and 2013 impacted on cycling and athletics, respectively; in 2014, it campaigned against the Russian anti-gay laws brought to light by the Winter Olympics in Sochi. In 2015, it declared itself the first official non-sponsor of FIFA, an “anti-association” with football’s governing body that received international media coverage and awards. Fuller will also tell you that being good is good for business, and that he’s predicting double-digit growth in 2016.

Why does Skins take an ethical stand in the sports world?
In 2009, our success with performance clothing led us to say that Skins was “fuelling the true spirit of competition” and that gave us a platform to champion and advocate great acts of sportsmanship. Then, in 2012, the Lance Armstrong thing happened and we condemned him for his cheating, but we had no idea of the degree of complicity that the global cycling governing body had with the doping culture. When it became clear that was the case, we said, “Well, we can sit here and advocate all the wonderful things, but if there is corruption and bad behaviour in sports governance? That screws the whole thing up.” That set a template.

How hard is to convince people that this is good for business?
Well, it has been a struggle, both externally and internally. For example, if I go off and do a campaign and spend 50 grand, I’ll have one of my general managers say, ‘Hey Jaimie, for 50 grand I could have done a product of the month deal with Amazon, and instantly moved the needle in sales and I might have hit my targets and got my bonus.” Everything I do I take out of our marketing budget, and I’m very open about saying that what we’re doing is about building the brand and looking for a benefit for the brand, and we absolutely do care about the commercial side. But I’ve been able to convince people that the different way we do things is the way to go.

We can use sport as a tool to champion, to affect and to influence

So has business improved since you took this stand?
Yes, and I think this year we’ll grow about 10 per cent, in revenue terms. We’re a challenger brand, and where everybody zigs, I like to zag. This is a way that we can get to have our views heard in a way that we can make a positive impact, too. I reckon we’ve got a three-part brand journey: part one was all the Corinthian values about what happens on the field; part two has been about the activism and lobbying for reform in governance. Part three is the really exciting part – when we get to do something. Bluntly, my vision is that I want Skins to do in the world of sport what Bob Geldof did with music – where he said, “I want to do something about this problem” using music, something incredibly powerful. We can do the same thing with sport. So in the third part of our brand journey, we can look at LGBT issues, racism and indigenous peoples’ issues, gender equality; it might be mental health or domestic violence. There are things that we can do and we can use sport as a tool to champion, a tool to affect and a tool to influence, all for the positive.

Why are you seeking investment through crowdfunding?
Skins went through the private equity journey at the end of 2007, and in April 2012 I led the buy-back. As fascinating as that journey was, it was not the right thing for our business and it was not the right thing for me. It supressed our creativeness, our entrepreneurism, it affected our company and brand culture. After four years, we’re back flying again. Now we’ve got a great bottom line, we want to go to the next level and grow the business. When I looked at crowdfunding, and the Seedrs platform in particular, it chimed with all the stuff we’d been doing for the last four years involving the democratisation of sport, So now we’re saying to people, “You can have a piece of us, literally and metaphorically.” We’ve had a huge amount of interest.

Do you have to be squeaky clean to run an ethical business?
The first thing that some people call me out for is being a hypocrite, so I have to talk freely about everything. If you Google my name, one of the first things that comes up is that I had problems in 2006 with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission. We ran a campaign in 2005 that said we didn’t pay athletes, which was fully legitimate. A year later we ran it again, and in the interim we’d started some sponsorships. It cost me more than a million bucks but hey… I find it’s better to talk about the lessons you learn, the mistakes you make. I still am a bit uncomfortable about standing up and talking about some of the issues Skins deals with now, but somebody’s got to do it. That’s how it started, with the cycling stuff. I didn’t intend to do it, because I thought the sponsors would stand up and do something. Three weeks later, nobody had done anything so I thought, “Well, I’d better do it.”

But you can’t just say ‘this thing is bad’ and hope for a response, though?
You’re dead right: it takes creativity and smart thinking. I’ve got some sensational people in the Skins team and also a brilliant team in our creative agency in London. A good example would be our campaign from January last year, when we declared ourselves the first official non-sponsor of FIFA. We had a full-page announcement published in Sepp Blatter’s local newspaper in Switzerland. It cost me five grand to go in that newspaper and it got global coverage. That took great creative thinking, great strategic thinking and, from our perspective, balls. We took the view that if FIFA sued us, for IP violation, it would add fuel to the fire. They didn’t. It worked.

Jaimie Fuller is Chairman of Skins.