Industry reaction: Ronaldo’s outburst smacks of hypocrisy, but will Coca-Cola really take a hit?

PR professionals and sports marketing experts believe the Portuguese football star may be somewhat hypocritical, given his past endorsements, but his pulling power should not be ignored. Questions have also been raised about the value of product placements.

Cristiano Ronaldo moves two bottles of Coca-Cola at a Euro 2020 press conference
Cristiano Ronaldo moves two bottles of Coca-Cola at a Euro 2020 press conference

Coca-Cola's top brass in Atlanta may have collectively gasped when football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo snubbed a bottle of Coke placed in front of him and then urged fans to drink water at a Euro 2020 press conference on Monday.

The video went viral and parts of the media, falsely, speculated the outburst had shaved billions from Coca-Cola’s market value.

Although Ronaldo’s influence on a football pitch cannot be matched (perhaps aside from a certain Lionel Messi), even he is not powerful enough to have that kind of impact on the stock market; it has emerged that the majority of Coca-Cola’s stock price decline happened just before Ronaldo’s presser took place.

Days later, French star Paul Pogba removed a bottle of Heineken and Italian midfielder Manuel Locatelli (see below) moved bottles of Coke from frame at a press conference. 

Ronaldo and Pogba’s public spats have raised questions about the power dynamic between sponsors, sports authorities and athletes, and whether they wield increasing activist power to push back against the commercial entities that fund their sports. 

It also places a spotlight on whether product placements at press conferences are outdated.

Communications and sports marketing experts share their views on the Ronaldo vs Coca-Cola spat:

Adam Raincock, co-founder, The Space Between

The Ronaldo and Pogba moves seem to form part of a wider narrative around athlete activism and their ability to push back against the accepted way of doing things. For years athletes have dutifully done what is asked of them by tournament organisers, but following on from Naomi Osaka at the French Open it now feels like these practices are under real scrutiny for the first time. The headache for organisers is the global profile of the athletes breaking down these accepted practices. Ronaldo, Pogba and Osaka are big enough to blow the doors off for other athletes to follow suit and take aim at questionable practices of tournament partners. 

Organisers are faced with a dilemma – come down hard on the teams or athletes to protect the integrity of their sponsorship programme but risk going against the court of public opinion and further rebellion from athletes. UEFA’s ability to act is also compromised as it’s the federations that have signed up to UEFA’s rules and are therefore on the hook, not the players. Will UEFA slap Portuguese FA wrists? Maybe. Is the Portuguese FA going to haul its star player over the coals mid-tournament? No chance. Whether Ronaldo’s motivations are pure or not is another question, but with UEFA already under scrutiny for some of its less controversial commercial partners, its next move has far-reaching implications. How long before an emboldened athlete takes aim at Gazprom or Alipay?

Lorraine Bridges, director, Bare PR

My general thoughts are that sports figures are uniquely timeless heroes and so their behaviour, and any negative fallout on brands, has longevity. It's tied up in our memories of iconic sporting occasions and, in this case, straight off the back of Ronaldo being named top scorer in men's European Championship history. They also span the generations in terms of their appeal, so younger generations who don't yet have entrenched brand loyalty could arguably be influenced. 

I doubt this will hurt Coca-Cola longer term as it's almost a bulletproof brand, and it isn't that Ronaldo rejected Coke for a direct competitor. It's a lifestyle choice and no one, including Coke, is pretending it's a healthy drink. It's a reminder that no one can be complacent and wherever influential public figures are concerned you have to do your research on their personal preferences and lifestyle. And be ready for what comes next – because this could be a story that runs throughout the Euros and Coke as a key sponsor needs to be prepared for that. Will this reopen the debate about unhealthy foods/drinks sponsoring sporting events?

Chris Allen, managing director of Pitch Marketing Group

I’m sure Coca-Cola execs are as aghast at Ronaldo’s hypocrisy as I am – he's a man who in his younger years appeared in Coca-Cola ads and more recently campaigns for “unhealthy brands” like KFC, the energy drink Soccerade and brewer AB InBev. However, if anyone knows how to build his own brand, Ronaldo does, and I wouldn’t put it past him to have seen the opportunity to boost his family-friendly wellbeing credentials with a viral moment on the biggest stage. I wonder if we’ll now see more and more brands choosing the healthiest possible options from their product portfolio in their sports sponsorships – something Heineken has done well in focusing on its 0.0 range for the Europa League.

Mandy Sharp, founder and chief executive, Tin Man Communications

Coke’s guiding principle as this plays out should be authenticity. It makes fizzy drinks – it doesn’t claim to be healthy or a replacement for water. Brands need to be authentic to build long-lasting connections with consumers. And everyone is entitled to choose what they want to drink. As for Ronaldo, the key for any celebrity endorsement is to have credibility and… I don’t believe he has that when it comes to healthy eating and drinking – he’s also promoted KFC in the Middle East and I’ve also seen pictures of him advertising Coke. The thing about social media and fans is that nothing is ever forgotten, and it didn’t take long for these photos to start appearing on Twitter.

Following Pogba’s removal of the Heineken bottle, brands should be more sensitive and conscious of who they are trying to get brand association with. Perhaps it’s also a lesson that brands should devise more sophisticated marketing strategies than simply sticking a bottle on a table in front of any footballer passing through the press room.

Pete Way, creative director, BCW

Pogba is a practising Muslim. Ronaldo is a health fanatic. Like any brand, they can happily comment as long as they are authentic…

…otherwise, you may be opening yourself up to criticism.

Jamie Corr, managing director of sports, Hill+Knowlton Strategies

It was during the press conference after the opening match of Euro 2020, Italy v Turkey last Friday evening, that I said to friends that the product placement was really outdated. This is not a criticism of Coca-Cola and Heineken, which employ the most talented sports marketing and communications professionals in the industry. However, we just need to take a step back and really unpick what happened and the impact that it had on our industry. Quite simply, it’s a contractual asset that both the brand and rights-holder have agreed, but which has become old-fashioned and obsolete. Heineken, Coca-Cola and UEFA will learn, discuss and collaborate to look at the evolution of their partnerships and address what is relevant for the future.

Also, despite the fact that Ronaldo is undoubtedly the most influential athlete in the football industry, his actions in my opinion did not have the reported impact of wiping $4bn off Coca-Cola’s share price. I must admit that I have found this reporting frustratingly naïve and we need to get better at really understanding the context and juxtaposition of sport and business.

Tom Conway-Gordon, communications and reputation specialist

From a brand perspective, it’s far from ideal when two of the world’s biggest football stars pointedly remove your product from the press conference table in front of the world’s media. However, should brand products have been there in the first place? It’s unlikely that footballers are going to crack open and take a swig from the product (for obvious reasons, and the fact neither looked at ‘optimum serving temperature’), so trying to squeeze product in for the ‘eyeballs’ seems rather clumsy, especially when sponsor logos are already conspicuous on the backdrop.

Footballers are handsomely paid to promote and endorse products in dedicated advertising campaigns, where the product is king and they are employed to endorse it, playing second fiddle to the brand in such campaigns. However, in this instance, and having just come off the pitch from playing a tournament match, these players are undoubtedly the stars in question here and, as we’ve seen, it doesn’t really seem the place for brands trying to capture some of their lustre in that moment.

Nick Fruin, account manager, W Communications

This stinks of hypocrisy from Ronaldo. Although his body is clearly a temple, let’s not forget his past brand deals with KFC and even Coca-Cola, the very brand he snubbed earlier this week. Gone are the days when he used to eat Big Mac’s to gain weight before training at Manchester United, a story told by former teammate Wayne Rooney. This change of lifestyle over the past decade is obviously what has contributed to Ronaldo dominating at the highest level into his late 30’s. 

But for brands involved in sport sponsorship there’s a wider question, will we see more top athletes turn their back on deals with products that are seen as unhealthy? It’s conceivable that brands playing in this space decide that paying the hefty sum to have world famous athletes promote their product is just no longer worth the risk. 

Simon Gentry, managing director of communications, SEC Newgate

Brands have  sought to associate themselves with celebrities for decades, of course, but social media has supercharged the concept – and it’s become much more political. Ronaldo choosing to brush aside a fizzy drink in favour of water happened at a time when some governments – including ours – are mulling measures to reduce consumption of high-sugar and high-fat food and drink. That’s political. 

The advent of social media has changed the game, and means that companies will need to work harder to think through and prepare for all the potential implications, political and otherwise, of their endorsement. Likewise, sports teams and individual sportsmen and -women will also have to think through their responsibilities to those who pay their wages.

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