Ronaldo and Coca-Cola – an awkward moment for Euro 2020

There’s no question that sport is big business – and for companies and organisations investing in associations with the demi-god athletes, who are feted the world over, there can be big returns on the partnership.

None more so than in the world of football, and particularly at key times in the sporting calendar, where countries across the globe come together to celebrate the beautiful game.

And of course, we’re in the thick of such a moment now with football gracing our screens as the top teams in Europe battle it out for the coveted silverware at Euro 2020.

What happens on the pitch is, naturally, the intended focus of these tournaments, but there is always some off-pitch action that has the potential to derail the process for officials – and big brand sponsors.

A few weeks in and that has already happened at Euro 2020 with Portuguese legend, Christiano Ronaldo, sending a very clear message about Coca-Cola during a post-match press conference.

Prior to taking questions, Ronaldo removed two bottles of Coke from view of the cameras, and replaced them with a bottle of water, while mouthing the word ‘agua’. All this was done in front of the world’s media, and to say it didn’t go unnoticed is an understatement. As well as sharing Ronaldo’s thoughts on Portugal’s 3-0 defeat of Hungary that day, the media rallied with a flurry of stories crediting Portugal’s captain with removing billions off the share price of Coca-Cola.

To clarify, Ronaldo himself isn’t sponsored by Coca-Cola directly, but Coke is a UEFA sponsor and – as part of this – there will be contractual obligations for teams, including taking part in press conferences with logos and products.

Of course, whether Ronaldo was single-handedly responsible for the drop in Coke’s shares – or whether there were other global economic factors at play – is up for debate. But there is little question that Ronaldo’s actions will have damaged the reputation of Coca-Cola in the moment, and only time will tell what the long-term impact will be.

This isn’t the first example of brands being damaged by association with celebrities and their actions – whether well intentioned or not – nor will it be the last. When Tiger Woods’ troubled private life was splashed across the newspapers, he was dropped like a stone by sponsors Accenture, while Proctor & Gamble and Gillette said they would limit their marketing activity with him.

And there’s the case of South African athlete, Oscar Pistorius, who was sponsored by Nike – until he was accused of murdering Reeva Steenkamp, his girlfriend. And that’s not the only time that Nike came off more than a little worse for wear through its association with a sporting celebrity. The brand stood with Lance Armstrong throughout his career until evidence of his cheating came to light. Unsurprisingly, he was subsequently dropped.

But it’s not all doom and gloom in the world of celebrity endorsement. There are times when an association with a celebrity can help propel a product, service, campaigning issue or charitable cause into the limelight in a way that would be hard to achieve through any other means.

Take the example of Welsh comedian, Rhod Gilbert. We worked with Rhod when he became the face of a campaign to bring the serious – and often taboo – issue of male infertility into the public eye.  He fronted the HIMfertility campaign as part of his one-off TV documentary, Stand Up to Infertility, which was an honest – as well as entertaining – insight into this sensitive subject area.  Rhod was the perfect frontman for the campaign as his own personal journey of infertility meant he could talk about the subject with sincerity and integrity, and he was able to dispel any awkwardness by approaching it with his own brand of humour.

Wherever you sit on this debate, it does pose a real question for those agreeing business partnerships and, in particular, the small print surrounding such deals.

For the decision makers behind sponsorships and other associations with celebrities, and the ever-increasing army of influencers, there is the issue of integrity, and a well thought-out partnership will allow for a more positive experience for both parties.

When it comes down to it, who brands choose to work with is, ultimately, best decided by picking the right people, rather than penning the right contracts.

This article was written by our chief executive, Angharad Neagle, and featured in the Western Mail on 28 June 2021.