World Cup sponsors need to tread warily

Football – it’s not a funny old game when it is the focus of hundreds of thousands of people wishing to express their anger at their government’s corruption and their desire for change.

Branwell Johnson

Football – it’s not a funny old game when it is the focus of hundreds of thousands of people expressing their anger at government corruption and their desire for change.

That’s what seems to be happening in Brazil where civil unrest has not only caught the government but also FIFA and next year’s World Cup sponsors on the hop.

It seems impossible that Brazil’s football-loving populace is turning its back on the beautiful game. And it isn’t. But a large proportion are now protesting about the financial burden the World Cup has imposed on the public purse together with other grievances.

The question is will they focus their anger away from FIFA towards sponsors?

The run-up to the World Cup, the FIFA Confederations Cup, has seen protests outside stadiums. The potential image of tear-gassed crowds surrounding the World Cup venues next year is not one, I imagine, brands from Adidas to Coca-Cola will want to be linked to.

So far, sponsors have maintained an outward calm and not suggested anything but supporting a fantastic sporting event. But already I hear behind closed doors that there is a rising level of consternation.

What should sponsors and other brands allying themselves with Brazil be doing? First, they should realise they have no control over how their marketing plans may become annexed to protests. Diageo found this out with the hijacking of its Johnnie Walker campaign strapline ‘The giant is no longer sleeping. Keep Walking, Brazil.’ The brand might benefit from goodwill to the spirit of the campaign, but it’s not a safe bet.

Marketers should review their World Cup strategies in the light of the fact that any communication might be given a different meaning and purpose. They can’t stop it happening but might decide certain messages should not be put out in the first place.

They might also want to ramp up or speak louder about any CSR initiatives they are undertaking to demonstrate that the World Cup is not just about making money out of the region. These should be more concrete than the nebulous “permanent sports legacy” that a Coca-Cola spokesman pointed to when speaking to Marketing Week

The unrest in Brazil has not reached the point where the sponsors need to consider withdrawing their support. But one only has to look at the unedifying spectacle of the Bahrain Grand Prix in April, where sponsors were remarkably quiet about their involvement and swathes of stadium seats remained empty as corporate packages went unsold, to realise that the impact of politics on sport cannot be avoided or ignored.