Sponsoring major sporting events on an international playing field can bring rewards to brands. It’s any marketer’s dream and brings boundless opportunities for brands. There is return, beyond the cache of being associated with such high profile events. After all, there is the index-linked effect on sales, which can’t be ignored, as well as the value of a brand’s stock and overall stature in today’s economic climate.
You only have to tot up the figures to see how lucrative this market is. Adidas claims that the London 2012 Olympics boosted its sales, while Kantar reports that from 2004 through 2013, the Super Bowl game has generated $2 billion of network advertising sales from more than 130 marketers.
However, while sponsorship can give brands a chance to promote themselves on a global stage, as well as enter new markets, they must be prepared for the politics too. The 2008 Beijing Olympics saw sponsors targeted for their association with the event, with protesters putting pressure on them over China’s human rights record. There was also much scrutiny spotlighted on the London 2012 over brands that were not aligned with the Olympic values. Heineken and Cadbury, McDonalds and Coca-Cola bore the brunt of the negativity in light of not being wholly associated with good health. When people took to the streets in Rio over the Brazilian Governments preparations for the 2014 World Cup, the media turned to the sponsors for their response.
Now, it’s Sochi where some sponsors have found themselves having to handle difficult political questions over human rights and the government’s controversial law banning so-called gay ‘propaganda’. These are brands that simply signed up to sponsor one of the biggest events in the world, and presumably support the ethics of the Olympics movement. When McDonald’s started using #CheersToSochi on Twitter to cheer on athletes, protestors hijacked the hashtag.
Now when you search for the hashtag you’ll see reams of fiery messages directed at sponsors. Commentators have used the same McDonald’s branded Twitter feed to attack Visa, Procter & Gamble and other long-time Olympic sponsors that have issued statements backing a non-discriminatory games — but stopped short of condemning Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” laws. AT&T, a Team USA sponsor but not a global Olympics backer, has been the only brand with official Olympic ties to publicly condemn Russia’s laws.
Many brands take a ‘politics-neutral’ approach, avoiding taking sides on controversial or political issues. Silence can often be golden if a brand doesn’t have anything relevant to say or the credibility to say it. However, when they’re involved in massive sponsorships, it becomes very difficult for brands to maintain this position. And when they don’t respond they’re deemed as complicit anyhow. Or they could be like Google and change their Doodle to the colours of the rainbow.
But regardless of whether a brand decides to jump headfirst into the political ring or stay well clear, if they do so they must be prepared for the consequences. The reality is that we need these global brands to support the global events they sponsor. They serve to inspire us, our children, our nations and create a bubble where for several weeks of the year, the world unites around one event together in the name of sport. We should never ignore the issues but for the sake of the athletes, perhaps put the politics to one side and get on with the games and applaud human endeavour made possible with the support of brand sponsorship.
By Dan Todaro, MD, Gekko