Beyond a relationship breakdown
So, Rooney's been dropped by Coke. He'd been given a yellow card for antics with a prostitute, but was eventually given his marching orders for using guttural language. He wasn't the first footballer to have been filmed uttering such expletives (and certainly won't be the last), but the passion and style of his performance probably made him stand out.
This has got me thinking. Sponsorship always has the possibility of back-firing, even more so if it involves someone set up as the ambassador or endorser. Sometimes brands find it difficult to control themselves anyway: just think back to the problems faced by Perrier when it had to recall all its stock because of benzene contamination, or more recently the brakes and accelerators issues faced by Toyota. But when sponsorship properties get into bed with third party people or brands the risk can compound; very often only limited control can be exercised. So, canny brands are prepared.
In Rooney's case, he was tipped to be the finest footballer in the world by the British media and it was generally thought this would be showcased during the last World Cup. We all know how that ended: more tears than Gazza. Who knows, maybe the real reason he was dropped by Coke was this unfilled potential; the necessity of having a "clean boy" image might have simply been exercised as an escape clause in the contract.
Certain qualitative specialists are often asked to research "appropriate fit" between properties and sponsors. And the criteria we typically use tend to relate to strength of property/brand, potential benefits from the association, synergy and risk. Considering the brand values of Coca Cola and the personality of Rooney, I assume the strength of brand and potential benefits carried the decision (irrespective of what Rooney did, it could only result in a gnat bite for a brand as strong as Coke).
And the divorce? This can only be beneficial to Coca Cola's brand image. By severing the relationship, Coke is making the kind of stand that Sir Alex would be proud of: no individual is bigger than the team. Good wholesome family values prevail, and that's what makes Coke the real thing (actually it's open happiness nowadays, but that doesn't really fit with my argument!).
The cynic in me even makes me wonder if Coke may have considered such an exit strategy when the deal was negotiated. After all, past behaviour is usually a very good indicator of future behaviour. It may even have been researched as a PR opportunity: I've certainly conducted projects in the past to cover "disaster strategies".
So, if the Rooney and Coke relationship is over, who's next?
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, May 2011
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2011