The run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympic Games earlier this year proved uncomfortable for several major sponsors. Social and political issues were at play, and brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's found themselves in the spotlight.
Sponsorship of sporting events should be about celebration, nations coming together to compete at the highest level. And yet sponsors found themselves answering questions about how they could allow themselves to benefit from sponsorship, when the very values that they publicly supported, such as equality, were views not fully embraced by the host nation?
How could traditionally non-political brands avoid getting involved in the political debate?
Brands are political
I've said before that brands can no longer avoid being political. It's not unusual to see brands espousing, and advocating, equality.
They can't pick and choose when to show support - and they have to be careful who they're associated with. If sponsors learnt anything from Sochi 2014, it's that sometimes they have to speak out.
Sponsors are speaking out
The pre-Sochi backlash was community driven. Protestors wanted to know why the sponsor brands weren't speaking out more. They wanted to know why they were supporting the event in the first place.
The recent corruption allegations against FIFA, specifically its awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, is being spearheaded by the sponsors. Sony, Adidas and Visa have all called on FIFA to investigate the claims. The statements issued by Coca-Cola and Hyundai/Kia have been more along the lines of a vote of confidence, than a demand for an immediate investigation.
These brands know the reputational risk that they run by partnering with a tainted brand. If FIFA doesn't take the corruption allegations seriously and fully investigate the successful bid, the controversy won't go away. The benefits that the brands get from sponsoring the 2022 World Cup will be impacted, and they may wonder whether sponsorship is worth the price paid.
Lack of control
Sponsors can only do so much. Adidas is an official FIFA partner until 2030, and Visa is a sponsor until 2022. The most they can do, in terms of public pressure, is to issue a firm statement and hope that FIFA listens.
But in a world where people are used to boycotting brands when they feel passionate about an issue, sponsors can be caught in the middle. There are already Facebook pages calling for people to boycott the 2022 World Cup - primarily from people concerned with human rights issues rather than corruption. (Anti-slavery groups have also called for a boycott.)
Consequently, people are now starting to target sponsors, with Facebook pages springing up calling for people to boycott the brands.
The sponsors are stuck with a long-term commitment, and reliant on FIFA to clear its name with the public over the corruption allegations. The human rights issues will be more difficult.
FIFA's own goal
FIFA's president, Sepp Blatter, has finally made public comments on the corruption allegations, saying that the claims were down to nothing more than "discrimination and racism" by the critics of FIFA against Qatar. At the same time as assuring the media that the situation would be discussed at the FIFA Congress, he said that allegations and storm of protest against FIFA made him "sad".
Any FIFA sponsor could have told him that perception can be just as damaging as fact. While none of the claims have been proven by FIFA's own investigation, people are talking about the claims, and they are taking them seriously.
Sponsors caught in the crossfire will want to see that FIFA is taking the issue seriously, rather than casting blame on its accusers and trying to cast itself as the victim.
The future for sponsorship
It'll be interesting to see if issues such as the 2022 Qatar debate, and the 2014 Sochi protests, change the way sponsorships work. In 2013, Adidas committed to being an official partner of FIFA for another 17 years (the next five World Cups). Perhaps brands will look to make shorter-term commitments, or stipulate break clauses if they face excessive reputational damage?
Sponsors don't appear to have a lot of power in the current relationship. All they can do is prepare for the storm of protest and plead innocence, their reputations in the hands of a third-party, which, at times, seems more concerned with silencing critics than listening to their concerns and taking action.