Cristiano and Coca-Cola: Brand de-endorsement is here to stay

Story Highlights
  • Are brands saying the right things to their customers? Is messaging that is going out totally loaded with the truth and nothing but the embellished truth?

By Harish Bijoor

Cristiano Ronaldo, the demigod of modern soccer leagues, set the cat among the pigeons last week. At a press conference at Euro 2020, Ronaldo walked in, sat down at his pre-assigned place behind the table, looked quizzically at two bottles of Coca-Cola placed in front of him, and moved them aside. He then picked up a bottle of water and proclaimed, “Agua”!

The ostensible takeaway of it all was that Ronaldo was endorsing water to be the best drink for all, displacing Coca-Cola from the high table altogether. A high table the brand occupied due to its sponsorship deals with the organiser. A message really.

While the message was a positive for water and its consumption, it spelt image-doom for brand Coca-Cola. It’s share value plummeted by $4 billion in hours. What was however unquantified was the hit it has given the brand in terms of consumption among its drinkers and indeed the fans of Euro 2020. Brand Coca-Cola was hit in the solar plexus! And how!

And it did not stop here. The next day, it was the turn of Paul Pogba. It seemed just so spontaneous. Pogba moved Heineken out of the press conference table. Many conjectured it was to do with his religious feelings, never mind the fact that what was on the table was Heineken’s non-alcoholic beverage. And then it was the turn of Manuel Locatelli. This time it was the turn of brand Coca-Cola again. And there it stopped. For the moment.

What then is happening out here? And what is the controversy all about? These are such innocuous gestures of stars at Euro 2020. These are choices they are expressing through visual action. Why does the sky fall on the heads in the world of brands?

For brands and those who manage them, these actions speak louder than the loudest words. Visual action of this kind, and that too at press conferences viewed by millions across the world (around 600 million), is just too big to ignore. Actions such as these have a way of going viral, and a digital estimate puts together 1.2 million memes and 220 million repeat views of this action at Euro 2020. That’s big.

What were these three actions all about? Were they orchestrated? Were they spontaneous? And what are they saying to fans, viewers and indeed brands?

Firstly these three actions in many ways are expressions. High-viewership visual actions demonstrated day after day by three big stars. There does seem to be some method to the madness. Every star is individually and if taken as three, collectively, expressing himself/themselves. All actions seem to say just one thing. Water is a good drink.

But then, every action has an equal and opposite reaction as well. Thank you Newton-ji. When Ronaldo moves aside Coca-Cola and raises water in his hand, it is surely a big action that de-endorses brand Coca-Cola. Welcome then to the new world of what I call “brand de-endorsement”. An action where a star replaces one brand with another, or as in this case, a brand with a generic item called water. Ronaldo and Locatelli therefore just de-endorsed Coca-Cola, just as Pogba de-endorsed Heineken. Brand de-endorsements that occurred at a very high viewership event press conference.

Is brand de-endorsement the new thing ahead? Will competitive brands use the guerilla action of brand endorsers to create noise for their own brands and categories in the future? Will brand de-endorsers be paid to do this? And is this therefore a big risk for brands to take when they sign their endorsers?

These three actions represent what I call a “brand snub” moment. The brands in question just did not expect or want this to happen. But it did. In succession (whether planned or spontaneous). And actions such as these could continue to happen as a cascade of events that will shake and stir the world of brands and brand endorsements. Actions that could set viral action going—not in the best interests of the brands concerned.

The real point is that brand endorsers cannot be owned by companies. Every brand endorser is a mind, body and soul on their own. They are indeed living beings who will take actions as they will, never mind water-tight and iron-jacketed contracts at play. There comes a time when the brand endorser thinks more of his fan and viewer than the brand he/she endorses. And tipping points such as these can come by easily. Brand endorsers could do this to a brand they endorse or to a brand they do not endorse equally, as in these cases.

From a pure viewer, fan and consumer point of view, Ronaldo, Pogba and Locatelli are heroes on and off the field after this action. Consumers love icons who take care of them and their health. And from a brand point of view, they are nightmares the firms can do without. Incidents such as these have happened in the past, but never as clearly articulated and in-series as what happened at Euro 2020.

Brands and their managers might just have to rethink their actions and their endorsers with a hand on their heart, wherever that is. Firstly, are brands saying the right things to their customers? Is messaging that is going out totally loaded with the truth and nothing but the embellished truth?

Brands need to also have a finger on the ever-changing pulse of their customers. They need to read their consumers better and faster than stars and brand endorsers read their mind and mood. Brand endorsers will progressively think of the good of the consumers (fans in this case) rather than the good of the brand they are endorsing, or not.

I do believe brands that are in what I define to be “socially ostracised categories” (alcohol, tobacco, high fat, high sugar and high salt for a start), will not get stars to endorse them in the near future. Brands in these categories might as well draw out their own mascots and build them to be their brand endorsers into the near and distant future. A ‘Fido Dido’ or a ‘Gattu’ cannot go to a press conference and de-endorse a brand for sure.

We are entering a very exciting age of consumerism and brands ahead. An age where everyone will think of the good of all, as opposed to the good of a few. Hopefully.

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