Ronaldo-Coke incident: views on brand endorsements, ‘unhealthy brands’ and moment marketing

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Last week, football icon Cristiano Ronaldo triggered truck loads of media coverage when he pushed away two bottles of Coke kept in front of him and held up a bottle of water signalling that the latter is a better option than a fizzy carbonated water. It sure is from a health perspective and there have been calls to highlights the ill-effects of soft drink addiction for years now. The incident got a lot of visibility on mainstream media too with many hailing the star’s bold act. The act was also presented as the one which triggered a $4bn fall in the share price of the brand. But as pointed out here, the press conference merely coincided with a fall which had already begun. Here are some thoughts on the incident from three perspectives:

Personal preference over event rules?

It is common for brands to sponsor sporting events and it is only fair that they expect to extract maximum mileage out of such associations. If the brand involved is in a highly competitive category (which one is not?) and has an ongoing sparring match with a rival (no pun intended) then a lot of attention is paid to contractual agreements ensuring that the competing brand does not share mind space. However, the competing brand will attempt to hijack the association, commonly referred to as ‘ambush marketing’ as we saw with the ‘Nothing official about it’ ad campaign for Pepsi in India when Coke was the sponsor of a major cricket tournament and several others. But it is only fair to expect a paying sponsor to get maximum impact for the sponsorship. The event organisers should ensure that the players follow all the rules pertaining to their conduct which may affect the sponsoring brands. One would imagine that the event organisers would ‘screen’ the sponsors prior to acceptance so that no ‘tainted’ company or those which operate in categories which are seen as harmful or inappropriate for the target audience is accepted. Tobacco brands were commonly seen on Formula 1 cars and would even sponsor cricket tournaments. But they don’t have such visibility opportunities anymore. So I feel players should respect the ‘rules’ of the tournament when it comes to sponsored brands.

I had initially commented on social media that Cristiano’s move was bold, commendable and comes from conviction. I came to know later that he had endorsed Coca Cola earlier in his career and so there is an element of double standards there. One could argue that people evolve and they may change their opinion, point of view or even behaviour as they realise they were wrong. Some popular cricketers were known to use foul language on the field and TV cameras relay such to our homes. Such behaviour normalises foul language, especially among impressionable children. If a sports personality changes his behaviour over time realising the negative impact it can cause, it should be welcomed. If such a player bats for good behaviour on the field years later I think we should welcome the change of heart. Similarly, if after endorsing a fizzy drink early on his career and now not rooting for such we can attribute it to personal evolvement.

The larger issue is one of personal preference taking precedence over agreed set of rules for a tournament in terms of sponsors. During the same tournament we saw Paul Pogba remove a bottle of Heineken (though it was a non-alcoholic variant) from the table in front of him at a press conference. What next? Will a sports star remove the raspberry variant of a juice brand because of personal preference? What if the Indian cricket team which has several players sporting beards object to Gillette being one of the sponsors as they don’t find use for such?

In the larger scheme of things, such acts will not impact the sales of such brands in the short term. Many products or brands in the ‘junk food’ category (fries, burgers, carbonated drinks) find many takers for their taste, addiction and ‘attraction quotient’. What may reverse the trend is a movement for healthy food which is yet to gain major traction. In the west, plant based burgers, going vegan and preferring healthy food alternatives have an appeal only to a niche audience still.

Health as a preferred bland platform

Sustainability, removing connotations of ‘unhealthy’ are a few goals which brands qare consciously chasing. Moves to replace plastic with recyclable material in packaging (Unilever), re-jigging the portfolio to enter categories with health connotations (Pepsi) are moves in that direction.

Ronaldo removing Coke bottles? Small news. Coke stock moving a bit? Boring. Superman Ronaldo takes a stand against unhealthy food and crashes the stock? That’s mainstream-insta-worthy.


In the future, we may see a waning preference for unhealthy foods, who knows? Just as smoking became uncool in corporate circles, especially inside offices one day the general public may shun carbonated drinks too.

Consumers are more and more careful when it comes to purchase choices, not only in terms of their own wellbeing, but also of that of the planet. In fact, they recognise that one of their main purchase drivers is sustainability. The impact a product might have on the environment, on plant and animal life and/or on humans has become so important to consumers that it can determine a shift in the perception of a brand.

Future of Food

Dial M for moment marketing

The Ronaldo-Coke incident triggered a spate of moment marketing social media posts. As with most such, the good ones were few and far between. And the ones which were good, were really good. Like this one from Fevicol which cleverly weaved in the brand promise.

Agency: Ogilvy

Unfortunately, such news events increase the pressure on brands to find a link to any occasion or event, however tenuous it might be. Ad agencies who are unable to get the right social media creative on time for such news events must be getting the stick from the client. A viral social media post (it becoming a WhatsApp forward is the yard stick) is a badge of honour for the client and it sets of a vicious cycle of expectations.

Do share your views on the aspects of health as an imperative for food brands and moment marketing.

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