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FIFA: A Can of Worms and an Unprecedented Opportunity

Just days after his re-election, Sepp Blatter announced his resignation as president of FIFA. Although sponsors who called for reform welcomed the news, the controversy is far from over. At a moment when public trust in big business is at an all-time low, some of our most loved and most valuable brands remain inextricably linked with FIFA’s alleged web of corruption.

Principal sponsors such as Adidas, Coca-Cola, Visa and McDonald’s can expect continuing pressure from consumers, some advocating boycotts. Reputational damage arising from their direct financial support of FIFA remains a clear and present danger. Perversely, however, the uglier the can of worms becomes, the less likely it is that sponsors will walk.

Market research conducted immediately before the 1998 session of the International Olympic Committee reported a very positive relationship with and attachment to the Olympic Games brand. On breaking news of allegations that votes were “bought” in the process of awarding Salt Lake City the 2002 Winter Games, the market research was thought to be invalid. Surely, the saturation of negative media coverage, the drip feed of more damaging allegations and the theater of U.S. Senate hearings would have diminished the brand’s value.

Not so. To see whether the brand has been damaged, at the behest of the sponsors, a complete re-run of what already had been a very extensive and rigorous global market research study was conducted a full year after the initial storm. Same sample size. Same markets. Same questions. The results were unequivocal: The brand and consumers’ bonds with it were stronger than ever. Consumers realizing that the Olympics had been placed in jeopardy paused to examine what they love about the Games and why. Consumers engaged with and reaffirmed their support for its ideal. Today, the Olympic Games remains a powerful brand for which sponsors pay vast sums to associate with.

Sponsorship value comes from associating with positive emotions experienced by consumers as they anticipate, experience and reflect upon the events, themselves. Athletes, contests, winners and losers, agony and ecstasy all work to catalyze the value that sponsors seek to capture. Sports administration and the high-profile administrators remain a sideshow until something like this blows up. With billions of sportswear and equipment dollars at stake, expect sponsors not just to stand firm, but to fight for meaningful reform beyond Blatter’s resignation. That’s the opportunity.

To have any impact, FIFA sponsors need to demonstrate more courage than they have up to now. They must learn from the likes of Chipotle, Toyota, Dove and Always, brands that all have shown the value of taking a position and advocating change. Now is the moment for FIFA sponsors to step up with the same energy and commitment that those brands have shown, motivated not by self-interest, but by what’s right for the game.

Their first test is to insist on elections that address the damaging allegations openly—including the publication of the infamously buried Garcia report, which contains details of alleged corruption within FIFA. They must facilitate public scrutiny of credible candidates. They must work together with broadcasters and member organizations, including the almost two-thirds of those who voted for Blatter four days ago, to plan a course that the public can have faith in.

None of this will be easy, and sponsors should not expect FIFA—as wounded as it is—to embrace reform. In the knowledge that they have a lot to lose, they must nevertheless agree with like-minded stakeholders on what their collective walk-away position looks like. They must engage with rival brands that FIFA may seek to use as Plan B. They must do all of this with great finesse—not threatening the game, only the administrative status quo. Finesse and courage: This opportunity may never present itself again.

Seán Meehan is the Martin Hilti Professor of Marketing and Change Management at IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland, and author of Beyond the Familiar: Long-Term Growth Through Customer Focus and Innovation.