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Marketing Brand Purpose Euro 2020

Euro 2020 sponsors on lighting up stadiums with Pride ads despite Uefa's muddled messaging


By John McCarthy | Opinion editor

June 29, 2021 | 7 min read

After a week of mixed messages from Uefa about Pride displays at Euro 2020 venues, advertisers are now lighting up the tournament with rainbow pitchside ads. The Drum speaks to the brands using the mammoth stage afforded by their sponsorship to show their support for the LGBT+ community, and questions why it took their influence to force Uefa's hand.

pride flag euros

Why sponsors unfurled the rainbow flag at Euro 2020 amid LGBT+ tensions

It all started at the Allianz Arena, around home nation Germany’s fixture with Hungary. The Hungarian government had just passed a law banning gay people from featuring in school educational materials or TV shows for under-18s, and the Germans weren’t happy.

Munich city council said it wanted to “send a signal of support for inclusivity and diversity” by lighting up the luminous Allianz exterior in rainbow colors, but the gesture was vetoed by Uefa, which said such a display would “contravene its regulations as a political and neutral organization”. Immediately, the backlash towards the Euro 2020 organizer began, and when numerous clubs, players and fans made their displeasure public, Uefa backtracked to allow rainbow flags at games, including from advertisers on in-stadium inventory. Uefa also rainbowed-up its own logo amid the PR backlash.

Who acted and who didn’t?

Uefa’s new position became: “Every partner can decide on their respective messages, artwork and activation activities and their decisions to transmit a message of tolerance and inclusion is fully supported by Uefa.”

The policy saw some Euro 2020 sponsors move fast to include all the colors (which skeptics call rainbow-washing) in their marketing materials during the weekend’s big fixtures – including the Czech Republic-Netherlands clash at the Puskas Arena, Hungary.

Volkswagen boss Ralf Brandstätter took to Linkedin to offer his support for the Pride flag and introducing a rainbow remote control car – a nod to the mini motor which became talk of the tournament after carrying a match ball on to the pitch in the opening game. In stadiums, the VW ads which had been a mainstay of the perimeter hoardings suddenly took on a more colorful hue.

Meanwhile, says it “strongly believes in bringing across messages of unity and inclusion, recognizing the role of travel as a force for good in the world” and accordingly ran rainbow-tinted ads too.

Hongi Luo, the UK marketing lead for TikTok, explains to The Drum that for all matches in the round of 16, its perimeter boards will feature rainbow-colored ’Where All Fans Play’ placements. This comes as part of its push into European football – a cornerstone of its growth ambitions.

“As Uefa Euro 2020 sponsors, our priority has been to foster a positive, inclusive and safe space where all football fans can come together and share their love for the beautiful game. TikTok thrives on the diversity of our community, and we are wholeheartedly committed to supporting and uplifting LGBTQ+ voices.“

A spokesperson from JustEat told The Drum: "We hope this small gesture of support helps, if only a little. Everybody deserves to be themselves and be recognized for who they are.”

On Tuesday it published a visual with rainbow flag on all of its social media channels and for all round of sixteen matches will show a rainbow on its LED boards for 2x 30 sec at the kickoff of every match. Heineken embraced the opportunity to get involved, injecting unmistakable nods to the Pride flag in their stadium advertising.

Where all fans play

The remaining tournament sponsors Qatar Airways, Coca-Cola, Gazprom, Alipay, Vivo and HiSense have to date made no alterations to their branding.

Uefa’s blurred stance

PR professionals have criticized Uefa for the muddled stance it has taken by allowing brands to advertise with the Pride flag while prohibiting players and stadiums the same opportunity to show their support to the community.

Mary Killingworth, managing director at Brandnation, a PR firm specializing in sports marketing, says that blocking the Allianz Arena’s proposal for being “too political” while approving rainbow pitch-side advertising shows the governing body’s complete lack of self-awareness and continued lack of clarity on what it will allow.

“LGBT+ representation in football has made a number of headlines throughout the tournament – a number of which are a direct result of Uefa’s lack of clarity on its position on the subject, and the action it has subsequently taken. To give one example, German goalkeeper Manuel Neuer was initially hit with a Uefa sanction for wearing a rainbow armband. However, no further action was taken following a widespread backlash on social media.“

The decision to allow Pride-themed advertising only further blurs Uefa’s stance.

Uefa has faced accusations of supporting Pride messaging when it is set to make a profit, rather than taking a clear position from the outset of the tournament to back diversity and inclusivity in line with its own Equal Game campaign.

“The debacle reinforces the importance of needing a clear and reasoned position on such important social matters, especially within the current climate,“ adds Killingworth. “It is inevitable that sport and politics are going to collide as more sports teams and athletes turn to activism to lend their support to injustices – it’s Uefa’s responsibility to foresee this, understand its impact and tailor its communication accordingly.“

Asad Dhuna, chief executive of The Unmistakables, a PR and brand consultancy specializing in diversity and inclusion, agrees with Killingworth that Uefa’s baffling approach shows it’s more concerned with the bottom line than engaging with LGBT+ rights.

“Raising a rainbow flag, in any guise, is not just a celebration, it is an act of solidarity towards countless people in a number of countries who still live in fear and under persecution for who they are,” he says.

“By allowing pitch-side rainbow adverts but not lighting up a stadium to send a message to a nation or allowing statements from players, Uefa’s actions suggest an approach to diversity and inclusion that is more attached to the bottom line rather than improving basic rights for the LGBT+ community. It’s impossible to detach money from morals here.”

Additional reporting from Jen Faull.

Marketing Brand Purpose Euro 2020

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