A sign of the times

Whether you choose a team or an individual, a sponsorship property should embody values that reflect well on your own brand image. But that relationship should always be protected by a comprehensive contract, allowing the sponsor to take action should the rights holder act in a way that could tarnish the sponsor's image.

When West Bromwich Albion striker Nicolas Anelka recently celebrated a goal with the controversial 'quenelle' gesture, he insisted it was anti-establishment rather than anti-semitic. The Footbal Association charged him with making an improper gesture, but with a hearing date still to be set, the Club continued to select him, against the wishes of their shirt sponsor, Zoopla (an online property search engine). The sponsor quickly announced that it would not renew its deal with WBA, sighting the player's behaviour as the reason.

The visibility of high profile players should be an asset for both sponsor and club, but it can also be a weak point. As soon as an individual steps out of line – and often the combination of youth, privilege and wealth makes it inevitable – it turns into a problem.  In the past we have also commented on how sponsor’s can be directly impacted by individual behaviour (click here to see our blog: When sponsorship gets personal – dealing with the unexpected)

If an incident remains the subject of debate, a hearing, or even a trial, should the sponsor head for the exit, or wait for the outcome? Could the gain from publicity cancel out any unfortunate associations?

Many people take the view that prolonged discussion is only going to increase the damage and the longer it continues, the greater the chance that the sponsor's stakeholders will be offended.  However, in the case of Zoopla, there is an argument to say that the sponsor achieved considerable extra exposure from the incident, without damage to its image.  It was also widely reported that the sponsor was terminating the contract as a result of the incident, when actually Zoopla only confirmed that they would not be extending their contract which was due to finish at the end of the season.  I for one had never heard of Zoopla before this incident and I now know who they are and what they do.  I imagine I'm not the only one.

It’s up to every sponsor to assess the risk of partnerships and to establish their own level of tolerance. A team player coming out of a nightclub at 3 am is probably harmless and perceived as acceptable. Violence, racist comments, drug abuse or court appearances are a different story. 

All your sponsorship contracts should include protective clauses, drawn up by experts; and the wording should ensure you can get out of the contract quickly and cleanly if things go sour, without waiting for the contract to end.

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