So what exactly does it take for a sponsor to give up on a sports franchise? Well this year has given us a few meaty examples to chew over – culminating in Thierry Henry’s blatant handball for France vs the Republic of Ireland (which knocked the latter out of the FIFA World Cup).
The year kicked off with Kelloggs deciding to withdraw its support for swimming sensation Michael Phelps after he was caught smoking a cannabis pipe. We then saw ING quit the Renault Formula One team over the infamous instruction for Nelson Piquet Jr to crash his car. By contrast, we’ve seen rugby club Harlequins manage to avoid any serious fallout from the Bloodgate scandal. And now Gillette has decided to stand by Thierry Henry, who is one of the company’s top star endorsement properties.
At first sight, there’s no obvious unifying theme here. But let’s dig a little deeper and see what we can uncover. Let’s start with Kelloggs and Phelps. Here the message is that recreational drugs and family brands don’t mix. That point is further underlined by the way in which brands like H&M withdrew support from Kate Moss over her use of cocaine.
This taboo regarding recreational drugs doesn’t, however, extend to adult brands. It’s notable, for example, that Speedo, Omega, Visa, Mazda and Pure Sports all rallied round Phelps. Omega even went as far as to call it “a non-issue” – which was more feisty than the brand needed to be when you consider Phelps felt compelled to say sorry.
The ING F1 example is not so helpful in developing a viewpoint – since the company was already poised to quit the Renault team just a few races later (at the end of the 2009 season). Far more interesting would have been if the scandal had occurred just after ING signed up with the team. Such was the severity of the offence that ING would probably still have pulled out – but the decision to do so would unquestionably have been a much tougher call.
And what of the Harlequins and Henry stories? Well the message here seems to be that sponsors understand the pressures that make teams and stars cheat – and are willing to forgive them if they show sufficient levels of contrition (the one stand-out exception being performance-enhancing drugs). Harlequins were mortified to discover the extent of the bloodgate scandal while Henry has not flinched from facing the press. That was enough to mollify their sponsors.
Still, such observations don’t really get us to the nub of sponsor decision-making – because they assume the final judgment by the brand owner is partly based on ethics, as though sponsors are a kind of offended surrogate parent.
In truth, the issue of morality is a distraction. Sometimes morality and commerce seem to go hand in hand in sports sponsorship. But the ultimate decision whether to stay or go is almost invariably commercial – with only the most extreme forms of behaviour likely to lead to withdrawal on moral grounds. Assuming the conduct in question is not criminal (eg match-fixing), companies make a calculated decision based on the likely impact on brand equity and sales – nothing more. For all of the talk about fairplay, cheating is not regarded as sufficiently serious unless it involves performance drugs. And the reason that this stands alone is because sponsors need to be seen to stand side by side with governing bodies as they wage war on drugs.
This shouldn’t surprise us. After all, brand custodians are answerable in the final analysis to their shareholders. It’s not for them to make a decision that is likely to harm ROI.
Consider Thierry Henry once more. If Gillette had dropped the French captain, it would have pleased Ireland but cost Gillette the large and lucrative French market. That was never going to happen. Again, it might have been more interesting if roles had been reversed – and Gillette had found itself having to appease an angry French audience.