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Ronaldo, Pogba, others put pressure on sponsorship

by Goddie Ofose
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At the recently concluded European Championship, a footballing tournament within the European territory known as #EURO2020, event sponsorship came under scrutiny as two footballing greats- Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba of Portugal and France respectively took actions considered by experts as inimical to event sponsorship advancement.

While Ronaldo removed Coca-Cola bottles from his table during the media conference, Pogba dropped off some bottles of Heineken under the table. These actions have, inadvertently, put certain pressure on brands to review their event sponsorship strategy across the globe.

Events are amazing opportunities to get ones brand in front of potential customers. Finding and securing the right events to sponsor can make the difference between strategic marketing success and failure. Event Sponsorship is a way of advertising a brand by “sponsoring” or supporting an event financially in exchange for brand exposure to highly engaged attendees.

On June 18, Ronaldo’s decision to remove two Coca-Cola bottles from view at a press conference, and dent the value of the fizzy drink maker’s sponsorship of the European Championship, has highlighted the risks brands face associating with sports stars made powerful by the social media era.

The Portugal captain, a renowned health fanatic who eschews carbonated drinks and alcohol, underlined his point by holding a bottle of water while saying “agua”, Portuguese and Spanish for water. The water brand in question happened to be owned by Coca-Cola too, but the damage – by a major sports star with 550 million social media followers – was done.

“It’s obviously a big moment for any brand when the world’s most followed footballer on social media does something like that,” said Tim Crow, a sports marketing consultant who advised Coca-Cola on football sponsorship for two decades. “Coke pays tens of millions to be a Uefa sponsor and as part of that there are contractual obligations for federations and teams, including taking part in press conferences with logos and products. But there are always risks.”

A day after, the France midfielder Pogba, a practising Muslim, removed a bottle of Euro 2020 sponsor Heineken’s non-alcoholic 0.0 brand from the press conference table when he sat down to speak to the media after his team’s 1-0 win over Germany.

Three years ago, he was one of a group of Manchester United stars who boycotted a contractual event for sponsors to protest at the club’s poor travel arrangements that had affected Champions League games.

Crow stated that the most important example of athlete activism came last month when Naomi Osaka, the No 2-ranked female tennis player, pulled out of the French Open after being fined $15,000 and threatened with expulsion by organisers for saying she would skip contractual media obligations because of the effect on her mental health.

Osaka, who has more than 4 million social media followers, used Twitter to explain her “huge waves of anxiety” and the “outdated rules” governing players and media conferences, and announce she was pulling out of Roland Garros.

Interestingly, Nosakhare Uwadiae, a lawyer and strategic communications specialist while reacting to the impact of Ronaldo’s action said, “This will have negative impact on the Intellectual Property Valuation of Coke i.e Goodwill, market share, brand equity and also profit & loss. Coca-Cola has to do something fast to halt this PR disaster,” he said.

In recent times, brands have been having turbulence with event sponsorship. For soccer legend Ronaldinho, the sweet sensation of Pepsi soothing his burning throat after a tough training session has hurt his bank balance.

The Coca-Cola ambassador shot himself in the foot when he rocked up to a press conference sipping on a can of Pepsi – the arch nemesis of Coke in the fizzy drink world.

Safe to say the big wigs at Coke’s headquarters in Atlanta weren’t happy when they realised Pepsi was getting the advertising they paid for. They quickly pulled the plug on the endorsement deal and now the Brazilian’s pockets are $760,000 lighter.

Celebrities’ actions against sponsorship:

A report in Better Marketing in September 2020 stated that, Samsung would have been delighted to secure the services of the best basketballer in the world to promote their new Samsung Galaxy Note III. This would be a way for them to win market share away from Apple. Sadly for them, when Lebron’s Samsung phone had a meltdown he decided to tweet about it to his 12 million followers.

On this, product fail, celebrity endorsement fail.

Pepsi loves their celebrities. From Michael Jackson to Kendall Jenner, many have been featured in Pepsi advertisements. Back in 1989, they chose Madonna to fight Coke in the latest battle in the then cola wars. Pepsi paid $5 million to use her and her new song, Like a Prayer in their advertising campaign. They were also going to sponsor her concert tour.

The first commercial broadcast was during The Cosby Show to an audience of 250 million people. The commercial itself was fine, but the next day her music video for the song, Like a Prayer, was released. It was highly controversial with Madonna witnessing a rape and gyrating around a burning cross. Church leaders immediately called for a boycott of Pepsi and under mounting pressure, Pepsi pulled the commercial from airing.

“When you’ve got an ad that confuses people or concerns people, it just makes sense that that ad goes away,” said Tod MacKenzie, a spokesman for PepsiCo Inc.

Another is Yardley Cosmetics and Helena Bonham Carter. Carter was one of the most popular actresses in the United Kingdom in the 1990s, but it was a surprise when Yardley Cosmetics chose her to be the new face of the brand. Yardley was a high-end brand that had supplied perfume and make up to the Royal Family for more than two centuries, and the persona/brand of Bonham Carter seemed at odds with this.

It wasn’t only the public who were surprised. Bonham Carter said, “I don’t know why Yardley chose me. I don’t wear much make-up.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement from your new brand ambassador. Yardley quickly sought to end the 500,000 GBP contract.

Reacting to Ronaldo and Pogba actions, the co-founder, The Space Between, Adam Raincock, co-founder, “Organisers are faced with a dilemma – come down hard on the teams or athletes to protect the integrity of their sponsorship programme but risk going against the court of public opinion and further rebellion from athletes. UEFA’s ability to act is also compromised as it’s the federations that have signed up to UEFA’s rules and are therefore on the hook, not the players.”

On how this can impact the brands negatively, Lorraine Bridges, director, Bare PR, said my general thoughts are that sports figures are uniquely timeless heroes and so their behaviour, and any negative fallout on brands, has longevity. It’s tied up in our memories of iconic sporting occasions and, in this case, straight off the back of Ronaldo being named top scorer in men’s European Championship history.

“I doubt this will hurt Coca-Cola longer term as it’s almost a bulletproof brand, and it isn’t that Ronaldo rejected Coke for a direct competitor. It’s a lifestyle choice and no one, including Coke, is pretending it’s a healthy drink. It’s a reminder that no one can be complacent and wherever influential public figures are concerned you have to do your research on their personal preferences and lifestyle.”

And be ready for what comes next, Bridges said, because this could be a story that runs throughout the Euros and Coke as a key sponsor needs to be prepared for that. Will this reopen the debate about unhealthy foods/drinks sponsoring sporting events?

For Chris Allen, managing director of Pitch Marketing Group, “I’m sure Coca-Cola execs are as aghast at Ronaldo’s hypocrisy as I am – he’s a man who in his younger years appeared in Coca-Cola ads and more recently campaigns for “unhealthy brands” like KFC, the energy drink Soccerade and brewer ABInBev.”

Coke’s guiding principle as this plays out should be authenticity. It makes fizzy drinks – it doesn’t claim to be healthy or a replacement for water. Brands need to be authentic to build long-lasting connections with consumers. And everyone is entitled to choose what they want to drink. As for Ronaldo, the key for any celebrity endorsement is to have credibility and… I don’t believe he has that when it comes to healthy eating and drinking – he’s also promoted KFC in the Middle East and I’ve also seen pictures of him advertising Coke, said Mandy Sharp, founder and chief executive, Tin Man Communications. The Ronaldo’s impact on Coca-Cola was far greater than Pogba’s followed up action on Heineken. The coke brand was reportedly suffered a bloodied nose as Ronaldo’s gesture cost Coca-Cola $4 billion Dollars as shares dropped from $56.10 to $55.22 in just two days.

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