News & Views

The Rights Stuff?

by Dan Southern
In the recently published Contagious 39, Contagious Insider's Dan Southern took a look at the challenges facing the sponsors of this year's FIFA World Cup and argued that it was time for them to break their silence...

Global sponsorships can bring breathtaking brand moments, but they are increasingly subject to scrutiny and scepticism. Sponsors need to find ways to talk about the issues that matter


Looking out across the São Paulo skyline from the boardroom of a leading Brazilian PR agency recently, I asked a group of its assembled executives for their opinions. How are sponsors gearing up for the country’s imminent and long-awaited spectacle, the 2014 FIFA World Cup?

In fairness, my question was loaded. Controversy over Brazil’s $6.6bn investment of public money into the tournament is well known, and the government and FIFA stand accused of driving social inequality in a country of disparate income. The question hung in silence for a moment. One agency client sponsors the tournament and I got the sense that this position of supposed privilege has become a burden. ‘It’s hard for us to dare talk to consumers or the media about the World Cup at the moment,’ admitted one. It was a similar tale across the city.

Rights that don't redistribute

Amid delays to projects and vehement protests on the street, the percentage of Brazilians in favour of hosting the World Cup has dwindled, from 79% in late 2008 to just 48% now, according to São Paulo-based research company Datafolha.

For Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Johnson & Johnson and the 19 other official partners and sponsors, this is a concern. Between them, they’ve paid $1.4bn in sponsorship rights fees to FIFA for this tournament alone and will, if they follow the sponsorship industry’s rule of thumb, spend the same again on activating those rights in order for them to be effective. So where do the above issues leave them?

In it to win it?

Sponsor brands of FIFA and other major global rightsholders like the International Olympic Committee (IOC) need to face up to a world that is increasingly sceptical of big business, and where myriad channels expose them to ambush from both non-sponsors and the audience. They need to find ways to address the issues that major events raise because reining back on their advertising leaves costly rights under-activated.

Visa, Coca-Cola, Adidas, Hyundai-Kia and Anheuser-Busch InBev have all signed up as partners for this World Cup, the next one in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022. Adidas has, in fact, signed through to 2030, by which time it will have partnered with FIFA for 60 years. These deals suggest that from a commercial perspective, the World Cup delivers. Little wonder. The 2010 World Cup in South Africa reached 3.2 billion people – that’s every other person on Earth – and the final alone was watched by 700 million. Over the course of one month, the tournament holds the world’s attention like few others.

But sponsorship of an organisation like FIFA and its events is about more than raising visibility or accessing money-can’t-buy hospitality. FIFA’s mission is a bold and worthy one, to use ‘the power of football as a tool for social and human development’. But on the evidence of its flagship event, this sounds like extreme hubris. In a sceptical climate, where only 20% of consumers around the world trust business leaders (2014 Edelman Trust Barometer), organisations that misalign their stated values with actual behaviours could be in for a fall. And under the scrutiny of communities online, silence or a failure to address the disparity directly can be damaging. 

Audience Ambush

By way of example, the Sochi Winter Olympics highlighted what’s at stake now for brands sponsoring big global properties. McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, both official IOC sponsors, were targets for LGBT activists, angered by Russia’s anti-gay laws, which none of the official sponsors dared to address directly.

McDonald’s Cheers to Sochi website, which allowed users to send supportive messages to athletes, was parodied by activists who created a resource for people to protest against other sponsors and hijacked the brand’s #cheerstosochi Twitter hashtag with photos of people who’d been wounded in homophobic attacks. The parody website reportedly racked up 30,000 ‘cheers’ to McDonald’s meagre 5,500.

As Jeremy Edwards, founder of sponsorship consultancy Activative, points out, the silence of the event sponsors was deafening, particularly in contrast to US network AT&T, a sponsor of the US Olympic team, which condemned the laws and sent out a message supporting diversity to its customers, partners and, crucially, its own employees. Its response was cohesive, consistent and unequivocal.

The Sound of Silence

In 2016, Rio hosts the Summer Olympics and similar concerns to the 2014 World Cup already abound. Meanwhile, FIFA’s future visits in Russia and Qatar (where controversial working conditions for builders are already focusing attention) will present their own challenges.

Sponsors should be placing pressure on rightsholders to review their rhetoric and to embrace a culture of closer dialogue and engagement with fans that would breed more transparency. Sponsors would, in turn, be better able to address more sensitive issues themselves, rather than having their hands tied when issues arise.

This article was first published in Contagious 39, click here to subscribe.