One of the benefits of being one of the sponsoring brands of some great macro sporting event is that there will be a lot of media attention. Popular people with a lot of traction in the market will also pass through the event, who will have to become, whether they want to or not, ambassadors for your brand. They will speak in front of a panel full of logos of your brand and they will have to use your products or appear more or less in some peace with them. The problem is in what can happen if the celebrities in question go off the established script.
This is what just happened to Coca-Cola at the Euro, becoming one of those book reputation crises.
Coca-Cola is one of the many brands that have an agreement with UEFA and whose presence at the event is therefore recurrent. In the press conferences, the participants have the classic and expected bottle of water (label removed, as required by the protocol rules and those of not having a water bottling company that pays to display its logo) and a couple of bottles of Coke.
It’s not that footballers and their coaches are going to sip Coca-Cola, but it doesn’t matter. The logo of the soft drink and its bottles will be sneaked into consumers’ homes every time images are served by the media. It is a kind of win-win.
Up to now. Now it has become a nightmare for the brand’s reputation team. Cristiano Ronaldo, the star of the Portuguese national team and ultra viral player, sat at the table, saw the Coca-Cola bottles and removed them without much dissimulation. He quickly sent them to the side out of camera angle. It would have been bad for the company already like that, but Cristiano Ronaldo finished off the blow. He looked at the assembled journalists and made a defensive gesture of drinking water.
The video ended up going viral – you could almost say that it was obvious that it was going to happen – and in a reputational problem for Coca-Cola. It is not only a problem of image – when sodas accumulate years of identity problems and sugar has become public enemy number one – but also of money.
When it opened the market in the United States, Coca-Cola paid for the effect of Ronaldo’s words on Wall Street. The less than 20 seconds that the player’s outburst lasts caused Coca-Cola to lose 3,967 million dollars on the stock market in market value. As explained in El País, there were more reasons to explain this fall (the stock market fell in general and there was another circumstantial element about Coca-Cola’s own shares), but it is clear that the player’s statements did not help.
Coca-Cola will have to bear that impact, but above all it will have to correct how Cristiano Ronaldo’s statements affect the public’s perception of his brand (which, we insist, was no longer necessarily good). That gesture of seconds destroys the new image that Coca-Cola has been trying to sell for years.
The problem of not controlling what happens
The Cristiano Ronaldo vs. Coca-Cola case can be analyzed as a reputational crisis, one of many that companies have experienced and that weigh on their data. The list of examples is very long and is full of cases that have already become iconic.
There is, for example, the blow that a Greenpeace campaign on palm oil caused to Nestlè and how poorly it managed the response. Or, more homely, when Ballantines supported Real Madrid on social networks and entered a minefield in Spain, fatally managing the negative reception of the fans of the other teams.
But the history of Coca-Cola is also one more example of one of the risks in sports marketing that companies take when they become large sponsors of this type of event and that is repeated in World Cups, Olympic Games and the like. The brand’s agreement is with the event itself, it works at a macro level. However, the brand cannot have absolute control over what athletes do, who are the ones who attract the eyes of consumers, and cannot prevent them from doing something that harms them.
When Apple overshadowed royal sponsors
The perfect example to understand it, beyond this story of Coca-Cola, is in the last Soccer World Cup. The company that won in terms of brand positioning was one that wasn’t even a sponsor: Apple. Apple sneaked into many of the images that were generated during the World Cup. Players went everywhere with their products, quickly identifiable by consumers. AirPods were ubiquitous, even though Apple wasn’t a sponsor.
Brands that were were completely overshadowed by their presence, and consumers were not processing their products or logos. What stood out was that guest brand.