Risks of Brand Sponsorship: Anheuser-Busch and the NFL

The latest round of pro athlete misbehavior, reminds us again that there’s high level risks involved with brand sponsorship. So, did NFL sponsor Anheuser-Busch do the right thing by publicly taking the football organization to task?

Sponsors spend billions of dollars every year to connect with their audiences through other high profile brands. Sponsoring a pro league, NASCAR team, nonprofit cause or a beauty pageant, is a highly sophisticated, expensive and calculated effort. But what happens when business and brands no longer align? Does a sponsor have the right to demand changes if the brand it has aligned with allows or condones inappropriate or criminal behavior? Let’s see.

When a man slugs a woman in an elevator and knocks her out it is a criminal act; when that slug is delivered by a high-profile NFL athlete there are also tangible business effects. An NFL sponsor’s trust has been violated contractually—a textbook bait and switch, however unintentional.

Sponsors choose to align with brands that extend their own brands reach. They choose a particular sport or cause because what it stands for in the eyes of their own customers. When that customer’s approval has been compromised by an action inconsistent with the sponsored entity’s image, the sponsor must speak out. To remain silent on the sideline, allowing domestic violence, child abuse or illegal drugs, to gain your tacit approval (or disinterest), would be costly. Many brands never quite recover from such a mistake.

In response to the recent behavior of NFL players, Anheuser-Busch did exactly the right thing. Here is what they said:

“We are disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season. We are not yet satisfied with the league’s handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code. We have shared our concerns and expectations with the league.”

Some have said Anheuser-Busch’s statement is all about self-serving PR: (A.) That is correct, but certainly not damning—they have made a promise to their consumers about what kind of brand they are and don’t intend to violate consumer trust, (B.) Had they not issued this strong statement, they would have lost a tremendous amount of brand equity and worse, condoned the abuse by their silence.

We’re talking about a company that knows it customers. We get choked up and shed a tear during halftime when the Clydesdales prance out with their Dalmatian companion at their side. Such scenes convey a sense of earned pride. The “King of Beers” is all and more of what you expect, maintaining a consistent company culture and moral code—now, there’s a novel thought! Wake up NFL. Cheers to Anheuser–Busch.

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