The World Cup shoot-out between profit and purpose

The hopes of a nation lie in tatters following England’s departure from the FIFA World Cup, with fans left prophesying what could have been. For brands, however, the takeaways should be far more tangible following a tournament that saw its fair share of reputational ups and downs.

From the treatment of migrant workers to the portrayal of LGBTQ+ people, Qatar’s World Cup may be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

And when it comes to learning lessons, the stakes could not be higher for ensuring that gestures are matched by meaningful action.

What we saw during the past few weeks has been a brand masterclass in purpose communications – of both how and how not to engage on social issues. Previously flaunted rainbow logos from tournament sponsors during Pride instead became a deafening silence when the smallest gestures of support for LGBTQ+ fans, through the wearing of an armband, failed to receive support. And only when potential revenue was called into question through the banning of alcohol sales did Budweiser take to social media to sarcastically comment… before deleting.

Is it the case that such high stakes in commercial gain are incongruous with brands taking a principled stand? And how should brands have engaged with these issues to avoid accusations of disingenuity? For me, there are three key takeaways.

First, be consistent. From social media analysis, the OneLove armband incident saw a 4,940 per cent increase in mentions and a surge in conversation around brand advocacy. In the face of such heightened awareness, far too many brands had not factored in a simple truth to their purpose and ESG communications – that progress and equality aren’t often an easy or quick ride. The issues we see front and centre of campaigns and so feebly represented in a vague armband are, unfortunately for risk-averse brands, hard won. Interventions which make a meaningful impact and resonate with those who took to social media in the aftermath must be genuine, issue-led and, most importantly, in it for the long haul.

Second, there is an undeniable power in role models. When Alex Scott, the BBC presenter, defiantly wore the OneLove armband, her online attention peaked at 955 mentions on 21 November, compared to an average of three mentions a day over the previous month – a 31,700 per cent increase. Alex demonstrated that role models and ambassadors have an unrivalled ability to cut through on social issues, fearlessly and directly tackling the issue through her personal platform.

Finally, true allyship goes hand-in-hand with bravery. Brands looking to take a stand must accept that the road to progress is rarely smooth. But the determination and steadfastness to stand by its principles may well be the difference between bringing it home and failing to even qualify in the eyes of an increasingly socially-minded consumer. The trade-off between profit and purpose has rarely been so starkly highlighted.

Ethan Spibey is a practice director in the corporate and purpose team at Brands2Life

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