Brands Roll the Dice with Major Sponsorships

CMOs and their marketing teams are excited and determined to get their brands endorsed by celebrities or ads featured in high-profile media events including the Olympics, the Oscars, the Super Bowl and other major sports events across the NFL, NASCAR, PGA and more. Such event sponsorships offer premium visibility for brands such as Pepsi, Visa and Anheuser-Busch with large broadcast audiences who expect and appreciate brand sponsorship of their favored sports, arts or community events year over year.  

Investments by brands in celebrity endorsements and event sponsorships have been a cornerstone of many big brand budgets for decades. Yet, the media landscape and consumer adoption of digital and social channels has complicated the ability for brands to control their own messaging. Sponsorships of broadcast events are now falling prey to this phenomenon as well. While a 30-second TV spot costing millions of dollars can share an emotional connection point or a clever tagline, all inspiration can be forgotten if the planned content of an event is interrupted or compromised by an individual participant seizing the opportunity to use the stage to voice personal opinions or stage protests that may or may not resonate with the audience.

Recent socio-political events have motivated athletes, movie stars and other celebrities to take advantage of an open mike to voice outrage or support for particular causes or marginalized groups.  While we are a nation that values free speech, how are advertisers and sponsors to anticipate the “wild card”— and should they be footing the bill?  Investing in a multimillion-dollar sponsorship should not carry undefined risks for a brand.

Celebrity endorsements have long had rules and guidelines that enable brands to drop a celebrity for cause as demonstrated when U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte lost four commercial sponsorships within days of the Rio incident.   But, there are no such rules or guidelines for situations where participants such as the 49ers Kaepernick, Reid and Harold took a knee during the national anthem (as did Dolphins Stills and Thomas); or when actors accepting awards at the Oscars share their perspectives, protests and pleas.  How do these individuals impact the overall event and the visibility and advertising impact paying sponsors have bought into?  

Event organizers, broadcast networks and the league/talent associations need to establish control over their events and all participants in order to provide sponsors with a desirable and predictable environment to support through marketing investment.   Let’s face it, it’s time for the NFL to find its balls to retain the $1.2+ billion it receives through brand sponsorships.


- Cam and Sue

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