Zoopla’s attempt to influence West Brom hints at the future of commercial deals

The old adage of being innocent until proven guilty is being turned on its head in the world of sponsorship contracts. Zoopla’s decision to cut its ties to Premier League club West Bromwich Albion following the latter’s refusal to condemn striker Nicolas Anelka’s controversial ‘quenelle’ salute demonstrates that sponsors are more willing to take an ethical stance to protect their reputation.

Zoopla is the latest example of a sponsor taking an ethical stance through its sponsorship.

The property website announced yesterday (20 January) it would not renew its lucrative £3m two-year shirt deal with the West Midlands outfit at the end of the season having failed to terminate it sooner.

The Frenchman’s salute, which is said to have anti-Semitic connotations, pushed Zoopla to question the club over concerns its Jewish roots were being tarnished amid the resulting race row. It says it will now focus on building the brand through other marketing channels moving forward.

In the past, sponsors would look to distance themselves from such controversies with a statement or a tactical campaign. But today the top priority is to push a brand’s values through sponsorships by taking an ethical stance. Most recently, Adidas reviewed its deal with golfer Sergio Garcia last year following accusations he made a racist joke about rival Tiger Woods. Emirates said it was reconsidering its sponsorship deal with FFA in 2011 in the wake of the voting scandal that rocked the governing body earlier that year. 

Sponsorship and commercial law experts observe that the balance of power between brands and rights holders is shifting to a point where the former are having “greater commercial leverage” whether its explicitly or acknowledged or not.

Antony Marcou, managing director of Sports Revolution, says: “It has taken a sponsor to force the pace in this situation. Zoopla is filling a void left by the FA’s lack of action on Anelka so far, and in that respect it demonstrates that sponsors are becoming more powerful. If a sponsor feels like their brand is being damaged by bad publicity, they will act fast to protect their reputation. Sponsors are marketers – so they know how to influence opinion and rally consumers together. Clubs shouldn’t under-estimate that power.”

Dan Smith, head of advertising law at Wragge & Co, says: “Often sponsors simply seek to ride out a negative news story. This is changing as marketers become smarter about the benefits and risk of sponsorship. We’re seeing more instances of sponsors actually putting pressure on rights holders amid controversies rather than seeking to disassociate without really doing anything. Any exit from a deal, as in Zoopla’s case, is likely to generate substantial publicity – both good and bad.”

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