Cristiano Ronaldo rape allegations: Should sponsors hang tight or cut loose?

Cristiano Ronaldo is one of the biggest names in football today, and the 33-year-old footballer is currently one of the highest-paid athletes globally with an enormous sponsorship empire. And while over the weekend he made headlines on numerous sports publications for Juventus’ victory over Udinese, his win was clouded as allegations around rape continue to surround him.

Ronaldo, said Yahoo Sports, in 2017 earned about £70 million (which includes a reported £28m annual salary), has his own brand ‘CR7’ valued at £70m. The brand includes clothes, fragrance, footwear products and even hotels. On the sponsorship side, he works with brands such as Nike, who have since expressed “deep concern” around the allegations.

Others such as EA Sports have swapped out logos of the footballer on FIFA’s Twitter. Others such as Save the Children said they are disheartened by the news reports and is working to get more information.

Meanwhile, the star has firmly denied the accusations being issued against him saying that as “keen" as [he] may be to clear [his] name, he refuses “to feed the media spectacle created by people seeking to promote themselves”.

But as fans wait with bated breath as to the future of the footballer, PR players suggest for brand sponsors to hang tight given this would hardly be the first time a celebrity endorsement has gone a wry." As a marketer, it is tempting to use celebrities and influencers as it gives an immediate boost to the brand image," said Manisha Seewal, chief marketing officer APAC, Carro Singapore.

However, celebrities can make mistakes too, and brands need a proper crisis management plan as part of engaging them.

"This is especially important as negative news spreads 3x faster in social space and fake news spreads 6x faster – so brands need to respond quickly," she added.

In case of Ronaldo, she added that since the allegations are around personal misconduct, in the immediate term, marketers should stay neutral, give space to the celebrity and let the authorities deal with the issue.  If there is an upcoming advertising campaign that is fronted by the celebrity, then its good to do a sense check before launching it.

"My recommendation would be to pause the campaign. If a brand still decides to launch, then it needs to be prepared that the campaign ROIs may not be met. On top of that, a rigorous on-going crisis management will be required during the length of the campaign," she said.  At a deeper level, the brand may suffer negative publicity, reputational damage and loss of customer confidence which will require a lot more investment in the future.

Lars Voedisch, managing director, PRecious Communications added that situations such as these are extremely difficult for brands. "On one hand, there is the innocence presumption; on the other hand, the accusations are very strong," he said. If brands move too quickly, they could lose a good brand ambassador and get penalised on terminating existing contracts. But if the brands are too slow to move, their own reputation and brand image might get scrutinised.

“A possible middle ground could be to put collaborations with a celebrity or influencer on hold until the matter is fully clarified. That way they take action, but it’s not a final cut yet. And at the same time, the brand acknowledges the severity of the accusations,” he said. Overall, brands always take a risk when engaging with influencers or celebrities as you can never predict what could happen.