FIFA, the NFL, and the Strategic Benefit of Sponsor Activism

ProtestFIFA corruption allegations have been around for literally decades, and with good reason. At this point, I’m not even sure I need to call them “allegations” anymore, as anyone, anywhere, with a modicum of sense would concur that FIFA is full of self-involved, greedy, scumbags, and Sepp Blatter is the worst of the lot.

But this blog isn’t about whether FIFA is corrupt, or even what needs to happen now to fix it. This is a blog about the sponsors’ role in affecting change in an ethical crisis, and how the way sponsors decide to handle that role will either benefit or harm their brand.

Note, I said “benefit or harm”. When it comes to sponsorship in an ethical crisis, there is no middle ground. A major, ethical crisis fundamentally changes the sponsorship platform you have to leverage. As your sponsorship results come from the leverage activities you undertake – what you do with the sponsorship – and not the sponsorship benefits, you can’t continue to do what you’ve been doing and achieve the same results.

So, the first thing to take on board is that, if what you’re sponsoring is having a major, ethical crisis, there is no such thing as a marketing status quo.

If you continue to do the same leverage using this very different, now tainted, marketing platform, your results are going to diminish considerably. That doesn’t mean you can’t get a strong marketing result for your brand with these changed circumstances, it just won’t be by doing what you’ve been doing.

The appropriate strategy will be driven by the fans, your target markets, and the organisational culture you espouse to your staff. It will be reflective of fan passion and fan frustration, and a strong statement about who your company is and what you and your brands stand for. Your results are far less likely to be measured in short-term sales gains, and far more likely to be measured in changes in people’s alignment to your brand, preference, loyalty, and advocacy – all of which do lead to sales.

If you’ve sponsored something that people are passionate about, that passion will create opportunities for your brand, even in a crisis. Whether your brand capitalises is all about whether you are willing to show some spine, be authentic, and amplify those passions.

It’s not a sponsor’s place to get involved

This is the point where many marketers will protest, telling me that sponsors should stay out of it, and not wade into the muck of controversy. That, my friends, is a crock of crap.

First of all, your job as a sponsor is not to be aligned with the sponsee, but to be aligned and connect and deepen your relationship with the fans – whoever loves what you’re sponsoring, whoever cares about the larger themes. Those fans are already in that muck of controversy. They’re dismayed and exasperated and right in the middle of it.

No soccer fan is saying, “Hey, sponsors, stay out of it!” The people who have been frustrated with FIFA for so long are saying, “If FIFA won’t listen to the fans, maybe they’ll listen to the money.”

Don’t kid yourself. If you decide to stay out of the muck – to be “neutral” – you are demonstrating in no uncertain terms that you don’t care about the fans, the sport they love, organisational integrity, and in some cases, human rights. You’re also saying to your staff that all that corporate culture stuff is just rhetoric, and doesn’t apply if the resulting decisions would be difficult. You are saying to everyone that your corporate greed trumps doing the right thing.

Don’t kid yourself. If you decide to stay out of the muck – to be “neutral” – you are demonstrating in no uncertain terms that you don’t care about the fans, the sport they love, organisational integrity, and in some cases, human rights. You’re also saying to your staff that all that corporate culture stuff is just rhetoric, and doesn’t apply if the resulting decisions would be difficult. You are saying to everyone that your corporate greed trumps doing the right thing.

Sponsor “neutrality” in an ethical crisis does not exist. You can’t just stand off to the side, look nonchalant, and hope no one implicates you. The only way your brand gets implicated is if people think you’re complicit, and a great way to impart that message is by doing and saying nothing.

And if what you’re doing is increasing the distance between your brand and the fans, what exactly are you achieving with the sponsorship? You’re not increasing affinity or alignment. You’re not engendering preference or advocacy. In fact, the best you can hope for is that your leverage is so insipid that you don’t achieve anything, because any other outcome would be bad for your brand.

The only way you could possibly justify not getting involved in the controversy is if you are measuring success primarily on meaningless, first-generation data of awareness and exposure.  But if there’s a crisis and you’re pointing to those unchanged visibility numbers as your rationale for continuing to back this “marketing winner” without question, you are either stuck in a 1992 time warp and need some serious education, too lazy to have a sponsorship job, or you’re simply making excuses for being cowardly.

It will all blow over when the event starts

And then there’s the argument that people will forget all about the controversy once the event/season/whatever starts. On one hand, this is sort of true, as people still want to cheer for their heroes, and they don’t want to hold the upstanding athletes who are competing responsible for corruption at the top. But in sponsorship terms, this is also a load of crap.

Here’s the thing. When we’re talking about huge sponsorships – FIFA, IOC, NFL – the only way to maximise the investment is to leverage it across a big chunk of time, not just the event or the game, but for months, or even years, before. As long as people care, the investment is leverageable.

So yeah, you may get a marketing window where people are paying somewhat less attention to controversy and ethics and the like, but are you prepared to spend tens of millions of dollars or more for a window of maybe a few weeks?

We can issue a statement!

While I’m all for sponsors speaking up, in the face of major controversy, most issue the corporate statement equivalent of a stern look from your mother. And then they do nothing. No follow up. Not one damned thing.

After years of fostering a culture that is very permissive of domestic abuse and other violent behaviour by players, the NFL’s crisis came to a belated head when Adrian Peterson was arrested for felony child abuse for beating his four-year old son with a stick. The NFL sponsors lined up to give statements.

On one hand, good on them for speaking up. Really, in the past, those sponsors probably wouldn’t have said anything, so that was a great step. On the other, exactly what has changed with the NFL? We’re getting ready for another season, and while the League implemented some tough new penalties for domestic violence in August 2014, one look at a list of NFL player arrests for the past year makes it clear that the cultural problem is continuing.

Where are the sponsors? Why are they not continuing to require more of the NFL and teams to change that culture? Because for all the tough talk last year, it certainly all looks like lip-service now.

Contrast that with a handful of FIFA sponsors who have recently gone in for another round of scathing statements, after Sepp Blatter decided he would resign in… (ahem) February… and that reforms would be undertaken after what basically amounts to an internal review.

From CNN

“We believe no meaningful reform can be made under FIFA’s existing leadership,” Visa’s CEO Charlie Scharf said. He called FIFA’s response to the crisis “wholly inadequate,” saying FIFA continues to “show its lack of awareness of the seriousness of the changes which are needed.”

Yeah, baby! Now, we’re talking! Visa, Anheiser Busch InBev, McDonald’s, and Adidas are showing the fans that they’re on their side, and demonstrating to sponsors everywhere that showing spine in a crisis is not only the right thing to do, but good for the brand.

What should sponsors do?

If you’ve got a major sponsorship and the property becomes embroiled in major controversy, this is my advice:

Side with the fans

Always. When major controversy strikes and the fans are frustrated, properties tend to ignore them. They either treat them like fickle idiots, who will forget all about it in a couple of weeks, or they dismiss their concerns as being those of a “vocal few”, or some more derogatory term, like “do-gooders” or the always popular, “feminazis”.

Your best strategy as a sponsor is always to add value to the fan experience. Using your power with the property to amplify their concerns is a huge added value. It also shows that you understand and respect the fan experience, even if the property doesn’t. Sponsor activism isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do.

Be true to your corporate culture

Your company, in theory, stands for something. You expect certain behaviour from your staff, your brands, and the companies you choose to partner with. That has to include the properties you sponsor. You cannot justify any other position. You cannot say to your staff and your customers that you hold your people and partners to the highest standard of integrity… unless it’s a sponsorship partner, in which case, they can do what they want.

Speak up, and make it count

Make a statement, and put some spine and passion into it. Issuing some mild, non-committal pap says that your brand is either weak, out-of-touch, or scared of the property.

Hold them accountable

You’ve made your statement, now follow through. Keep the pressure on, demand accountability, and keep the fans in the loop with what you’re doing.

Be clear about your reasons for exiting

If you do decide to exit, don’t do it out the back door. Make it absolutely clear to the property, fans, and if applicable, media, that you’re exiting the sponsorship because you won’t be involved with a property that lacks integrity/accountability/ethics/whatever, and refuses to do anything meaningful to change.

Don’t make empty threats

If you’re going to say that you will be reviewing your sponsorship, then review the sponsorship. If you say you’ll walk if things don’t change, then you need to be prepared to walk. Sabre-rattling is nothing for a brand to be proud of.

Don’t fall for threats, either

What? They’re going to replace you??

If they’re in the middle of a crisis, replacing you is hardly going to be easy. And the situation would create a buyer’s market, depressing prices. Plus, in the case of FIFA, they alienated a lot of the most sensible alternative sponsors well before this crisis blew up, meaning that they would likely have to back-fill with local Russian and Qatari sponsors, rather than genuine, global brands. Not exactly the sponsor cache they have enjoyed up to now.

Second, the only sponsors who would invest in the middle of an unresolved ethical crisis would be sponsors who lack sophistication, which brings me to…

Ambush instead

You don’t need to sponsor a property to get marketing benefit from it. Ambush marketing is legal and can get you big returns, if you approach it strategically.

I teach my clients all the time that they aren’t sponsoring the property, they’re sponsoring the fans. That mindset gets those sponsors to focus on the important relationship – between them and the fans – and leverage in a way that’s meaningful to them. Although it’s preferable to have the sponsorship as a convenient conduit to add that value, if the sponsorship is untenable, it’s not really necessary. And in a crisis, having that sponsorship may actually be counterproductive.

If you’re sponsoring a sport at the top level and lower levels – eg, the Olympics and several Olympic teams or Olympians – you can always refocus your efforts on leveraging the hell out of those sponsorships, making them punch way above their weight. This is a technique called “ambushing up” and works really well.

Don’t think for a second that walking away from a sponsorship, or being “replaced”, means you are walking away from the fans, because you’re not. Where there is fan passion, there is marketing value for brands who authentically add value to and amplify that passion.

You can do a straight ambush, analysing the best and worst aspects of the fan experience and adding value – amplifying the best stuff and ameliorating the worst. You won’t be in the stadium, but most of the fan experience doesn’t happen in the stadium, and without a contract to live by, you can be incredibly creative and responsive.

Finally, there is a technique that was used by several non-sponsors of Sochi 2014. Rather than trying to find marketing value in the larger ideals of the Olympics, they took an entirely different approach. They took up the protest against Russian human rights violations against LBGT people, reflecting the concerns of their target markets. They did what was right when the sponsors were silent. For more on that, see my blog on “The Other Ambush”.

Do one kind of ambush. Do them all. But don’t think for a second that walking away from a sponsorship, or being “replaced”, means you are walking away from the fans, because you’re not. Where there is fan passion, there is marketing value for brands who authentically add value to and amplify that passion.

Need more assistance?

You may be interested in my latest white paper, “Disruptive Sponsorship: Like Disruptive Marketing, Only Better“. I’ve also got self-paced, online sponsorship training courses for both sponsors and rightsholders. Get the details and links to course outlines and reviews here.

Rightsholders, for all you need to know about sponsorship sales and servicing, you may want to get a copy of The Sponsorship Seeker’s Toolkit 4th Edition.

If you need professional assistance with sponsorship, I offer sponsorship consulting and strategy sessions, sponsorship training, and sponsorship coaching. I also offer a comprehensive Sponsorship Systems Design service for large, diverse, and/or decentralised organisations.

Please feel free to drop me a line to discuss.

© Kim Skildum-Reid. All rights reserved. To enquire about republishing or distribution, please see the blog and white paper reprints page.

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