Analysis: Should Man U's sponsors speak up against racism in solidarity with team?

Manchester United has spoken out against an incident of racism against players Axel Tuanzebe and Anthony Martial who were on the receiving end of racist terms and monkey emojis on their Instagram posts. This came after Manchester United suffered a stunning home defeat to Sheffield United on Wednesday. The football club said in a statement that it is "disgusted by the racial abuse" received by players on social media after the game and "utterly condemns it". The club was also encouraged by the fact that many fans on social media also condemned such behaviour. 

It explained that it has zero tolerance of any form of racism or discrimination and a long-standing commitment to campaigning against it through its All Red All Equal initiative. "Identifying these anonymous mindless idiots remains problematic. We urge social media platforms and regulatory authorities to strengthen measures to prevent this kind of behaviour," the club added. At the same time, Manchester United player Harry Maguire also stood up for his team mates, tweeting that the team is united against racism and it will not tolerate it.

Meanwhile, a quick check by MARKETING-INTERACTIVE at the time of writing, found that Manchester United's global partners including Chevrolet, adidas, AON, Kohler, Aeroflot, Cadbury, Chivas, Marriott, Canon, DHL, and Tag Heuer hadn't yet to address this racist incident on their social platforms.

While MARKETING-INTERACTIVE has reached out to some of the sponsors for comment, it is a well known fact that consumers today are increasingly focusing on brands which support purposes and values that align with theirs. Last year's Black Lives Matter protests and Facebook ad boycott also saw more brands showing support for social causes and standing up against racism. 

Meanwhile a 2020 Zeno Strength of Purpose Study which surveyed more than 8,000 individuals across eight markets, said majority of consumers (76%) globally will act against brands whose purpose, values or behaviours they disagree with, by no longer purchasing from it. The younger generation, in particular, is most likely to champion on behalf of brands with a strong purpose, with 92% of Gen Zs and 90% of Millennials indicating they would act in support of a purposeful brand.

Adding his view to the incident, Zeno Group's MD, Asia, growth and innovation David Lian said as a Manchester United fan himself, he is pleased to see a brand he supports take a stand against racism and assert its values in a definitive way. Citing Zeno's study, he said having a strong brand purpose and taking action consistent with it correlates with consumers being more likely to trust, recommend or purchase from the brand. Hence, brands are expected to not only speak about purpose but also act on it.

I would venture to add that it is now incumbent on brands to determine what they stand for, and to act on it. I think there is much more risk in brands not having a clearly defined purpose.

While there might be some who disagree with Manchester United's position, Lian said ardent fans will be encouraged that their team shares the same values of equality and diversity and will end up cheering for the team all the more. "I am sure Manchester United, the players, and other workers who work there too prefer to rally around their team if it stands for what they believe in," he added.

The club's All Red All Equal initiative has been running since 2016, focusing on equality, diversity and inclusion internally and externally. According to CEO of GO Communications Peter de Krester, brands that come on board as the club's sponsor know full well that they have to subscribe to the policy and moral standing of the club. "These brands go in with eyes wide open and should be supportive of any action that has been taken by the principal brand. Just on this notion, I am not sure why more brands aren't advocating or being more overt in championing for the cause," he added. 

Given that race is a sensitive issue, some brands might be hesitant to comment on the topic. However, de Krester explained that there is always a time and place in terms of when brands should comment without stepping out of boundaries or show support. "We live in a world now where any brand should look at no tolerance towards racism," he said, adding:

The only way it will be eradicated is if people stand together, the corporate world included, instead of thinking of how detrimental it might be for the brand.

Similarly, Edwin Yeo, GM of SPRG said the English Premier League and football world in general have long campaigned against racism. This has been especially so since last season when players in the English league have been taking a knee before the start of every match until today. According to him, sponsors in general have always embraced the anti-racism movement within football.

"Nike, for example, was one of the brands that first supported former American football player Colin Kaepernick when he started taking a knee and has regularly ran campaigns supporting minorities in sports. There are some backlash from certain sections of society, but it clearly defines the sponsors' values when they take a stand on such issues," he added.

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