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Brand toxicity by association

In light of World Cup controversies, Brand and Campaign Director Dan Marsh explores the long-term considerations for brand partnerships

30 November 2022

Photo of world cup in foreground and footballer out of focus in the background

With the long-awaited Qatar World Cup now underway, the ensuing geo-political thunderstorm has created a whole new landscape for brands either directly associated with it, or attempting to be a part of the conversation.


In recent years, modern sport and culture have collided in a powerful way. This opens up all sorts of questions and considerations for brands. What does a sponsorship or association say about their values? How aligned should they be with the beliefs of an athlete or organisation they endorse? Brands can no longer expect to benefit from the popularity and reach that sport offers without considering what else their association brings with it.


The Brewdog Paradox


Before a ball was even kicked, Brewdog (in its ever-subtle way) took a very public stand against FIFA corruption that led to the World Cup being hosted in a country with an outdated attitude to human rights and inclusion. It positioned itself as the ‘anti-sponsor’ to the tournament and pledged revenue raised during it to human rights charities.


On the face of it, a noble enough stance executed in a very ‘on-brand’ way. But barely had the glue dried on the first billboard when people flocked to call out the double standards of a company accused of its own toxic internal culture, the screening of matches in their bars, and (the proverbial cherry on the hypocrisy cake) holding distribution deals to, you guessed it…Qatar.


You could argue Brewdog saw this coming and went ahead anyway, deeming the potential negative reaction from long-term detractors as collateral damage compared to the benefit of column inches? We can only speculate of course, but it still raises the question of how genuine the beliefs in their message were. Could this be a case of ‘morality-washing’: effectively offsetting their own dubious reputation and operations by pledging revenue to a good cause.


Brand Beckham tarnished?


David Beckham has spent a career carefully crafting a public persona beloved around the world. To many, his decision to accept a role as FIFA ambassador for Qatar directly conflicted with that. Why would one of the world’s wealthiest footballers, a valued and vocal advocate of the women’s game and the LGBTQ community, feel that £10m (or more) was a price worth accepting to risk tainting so much of that hard-won reputation? Advocates would no doubt argue it’s an opportunity to further the reach and access of the world’s favourite game, and that having one of its best known faces only serves to support the good the game can do.


That didn't stop comedian Joe Lycett offering £10k of his own money to LGBTQ charities if Beckham denounced Qatar before kick-off - or else publicly shredding the cash if he refused. Spoiler alert: he didn’t actually shred the money, but it was a shrewd publicity stunt to resurface the conversation on whether brands or personas can expect to have their cake and eat it. At what point is an association that seemingly conflicts with an individual or organisation’s values and positioning ‘offset’ by any positive impact it may create? It’s a yin and yang of moral confliction that brands need to weigh up carefully.


It's all in the values


Circling back to what brand association is intended to do, the cynical marketer in me says it’s about exclusivity, reach and visibility. It’s a way of activating your brand to a captive audience, forging deeper emotional connections around a place or time they are drawn to, and where your competitors will be prohibited. But these days, when getting it wrong can give rise to equally negative emotional response, marketers have a duty to assess the suitability of the association they’re creating.


Take Budweiser, a long-standing sponsor of FIFA and the World Cup for many years. Should anyone be surprised when a conservative Muslim government decided to prohibit the sale of their product in stadiums during the tournament (though predictably, corporate boxes are still allowed to booze to their hearts content)? Did FIFA not have a responsibility to their sponsor to agree alternative plans for this particular tournament? Should Budweiser have been more proactive in the years they had to plan for this outcome (albeit, in their defense, a last-minute one)? 



And consider the Natural History Museum’s agreement to a sponsorship deal with Shell for an exhibition on climate change. The Museum was allegedly prohibited from exhibiting anything that might damage the reputation of one of the world’s biggest polluters. Does this not limit an institution that should, by its nature, present impartial facts free from agenda? For its part, Shell argues that such sponsorship finances ideas and technologies that will help them transition to alternative energy and net zero.     


All these examples demonstrate the ethical maze brands have to negotiate. Business is rightly examined forensically by scrutinous consumers who demand it plays a more proactive part in making the world a better place.


But how to do it? Firstly, any brand needs to be absolutely sure what their values are and what they stand for before creating such associations. Conduct a thorough audit, and make sure where you arrive is bulletproof. If you aren’t clear on your own purpose and values, with some measure of demonstrable proof, how can you align a third party with them? 


Second, don’t view such associations as short-term tactical activations. They should be a commitment from all parties that reflect your shared vision to the world. Honestly consider how any partnership or association aligns with your purpose and values, and pivot accordingly.


Finally, be prepared to stick by those very principles and put your head above the parapet to answer any difficult questions that follow. Accept that, while you won’t convince everyone, you will at the very least win respect by having conviction in your actions.