The beautiful game or the bountiful game? Why Fifa's sponsors must make themselves heard

Hamish Pringle is strategic advisor at 23red, former IPA director general, and has had five successful business books published. With an agency career spanning 26 years, he’s worked on more than 50 brands.

The Fifa World Cup has focused attention on the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) aspects of sponsorship and celebrity endorsement which previously had gone largely unnoticed. It’s also revealed the weaknesses in a mere association between brand and property, as opposed to a full engagement centred on a creative idea or platform.

There needs to be a good ‘fit’ between the brand, the property – in this case the Fifa World Cup – and the customer. There should also be an ‘idea’ or ‘platform’ to give meaning to the relationship. But what we’ve seen recently, as the financial scandals surrounding Fifa, the governing body of world football, have escalated, is that the ‘property’ has been tarnished in a way that must be deeply troubling to the top six ‘Fifa Partners’, and especially Visa.

The ‘fit’ between Visa striving to position itself as a paragon of financial probity, and Fifa mired in allegations of bribery and corruption, doesn’t seem too neat. Similarly a brand like Coca-Cola with its focus on diversity, must be troubled by Fifa president Sepp Blatter’s 2011 claim that “any racist abuse between players on the pitch should be settled by a handshake” and his recent outburst accusing the British media of being racist.

There’s also a lack of ‘ideas’ or ‘platforms’ to give substance to the relationship, and in the absence of which the sponsorship descends into a mere juxtaposition and is a media buy at best. For example, Bacardi Limited’s relationships with Michael Schumacher, Rafael Nadal, and now Joel Parkinson, the champion surfer, have been given meaning and structure by the ‘Champions Drink Responsibly’ campaign.

The major global brands that are Fifa Partners must now realise that what seemed to be a good fit when thinking largely in terms of a media buy and an association with a sport their customers love, has turned into a CSR liability. So what should they do about this, apart from severing their contracts as soon as the opportunity arises?

Perhaps the most effective way forward is to take a leaf out of the sustainability book of best practice and one of the top 10 key trends in CSR. This is ‘leveraging the supply chain’. Significant contributions to reducing waste were made initially by companies working through their internal processes, and then extending the approach via their supply chains. Their commitment to sustainability was then widened by cascading it through their suppliers, improving efficiency and profitability along the way, whilst enhancing their reputations amongst key stakeholders.

These Fifa Partners, and other major brands with a commitment to CSR, need to use their individual and collective negotiating power to force change. If they don’t act they may be seen to be turning a blind eye to the alleged corruption which many believe is endemic within Fifa. Not only, but most visibly demonstrated by the awarding of the 2022 competition to the football-free, 40 degree, oil-rich state of Qatar.

It’s clear from the glacial pace at which their internal investigations are proceeding, despite widespread condemnation from the media and senior opinion-formers and policy-makers, that it’s highly unlikely there will be any meaningful reform. Even Sepp Blatter has the gall to be standing for re-election.

So if money is what talks to the people who run Fifa, it’s time for the major corporate sponsors to make their voices heard. Especially the six Fifa Partners which have made the biggest commitments and have the closest involvement at the highest levels.

According to IEG they pay Fifa an annual fee between $24m and $44m, and are the top end of a massive sponsor pyramid which is contributing around $1.6bn in World Cup sponsorship revenue. And it’s good to see they’re already exerting their financial pressure with a focus on the awarding of the 2022 World Cup and by making statements like these:

Sony: “We expect these allegations to be investigated appropriately, and that we continue to expect Fifa to adhere to its principles of integrity, ethics and fair play across all aspects of its operations.”

Adidas: “The negative tenor of the public debate around Fifa at the moment is neither good for football nor for Fifa and its partners.”

Visa: “We understand Fifa is taking this matter seriously and we will continue to monitor its internal investigation. We expect Fifa will take the appropriate actions.”

Coca-Cola: “Anything that detracts from the mission and ideals of the Fifa World Cup is a concern to us.”

Hyundai/Kia: "We are confident that Fifa is taking these allegations seriously and that the investigatory chamber of the Fifa ethics committee will conduct a thorough investigation."

Emirates is the only one of the six not to have made a statement – hardly surprising given its proximity to Qatar, but will this have repercussions for its relationship with Arsenal and lead to wider knock-on effects? As long ago as December 2010 it was reported in totalfootballforums that “Football-loving Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has made it known to senior associates in Qatar's sovereign wealth fund that the acquisition of a Premier League club would be an ideal platform to market the first ever World Cup in the Middle East…names that have come up include Tottenham, Newcastle and Everton."

And in March 2013 the Daily Express reported: “Qatar to offer Premier League clubs £175m each to play in Dream Football League.” While these plans may be temporarily on the back burner due to the Qatar scandal, if one or both of these scenarios were to come to pass when the dust has settled, what would the sponsorship domino effect be? Surely the ethical brands which support each of these individual clubs will have cause to reconsider their contracts? At what stage will there be a tipping point at which the tribal loyalties of football fans dissolve into a collective disgust which will infect complicit brands?

Sadly ‘the beautiful game’ has become the ‘bountiful game’ for an elite group and as the Chinese saying goes “the fish rots from the head”. Since this has been going on so long is it any surprise that sportsmanship is an ideal lost in the goal rush and that daily footfall fans are treated to the new sports of box-diving and teeth-tackling, to say nothing of match-fixing?

For those brands with a genuine commitment to CSR, their sponsorships will in future come under as close a scrutiny as their supply chains. Sustainable physical logistics have become embedded in many leading brands and responsible brand and co-partnership values will surely follow. These brands will react adversely to the kind of hypocrisy that FIFA is guilty of, and vote with their wallets to support other mass-market sports with cleaner score-sheets. Meanwhile they need to exert maximum pressure for change and focus more on developing a creative idea or platform which both brand and FIFA share, and which gives a deeper rationale for the sponsorship relationship. “My Game is Fair Play”, and many other FIFA programmes, could be so much more meaningful if they were given proper focus and resources.

Fair-minded brands should extend their CSR sphere of influence through another major channel, as they have done with sustainability - their sponsorships and celebrity endorsements. Based on IPA and Millward Brown data, it’s estimated this executional strategy is the basis of nearly 20 per cent of UK advertising and marketing communications expenditure. So it’s high time this major activity is aligned with the brand’s overall approach to CSR, and that influence is brought to bear on problem sponsorship properties, especially the high profile ones.

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