The company you keep: how the Fifa debacle will affect its most valuable sponsors

High-profile brands backing Fifa will face a reputational nightmare if they simply choose talk over action.

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They say you can tell a lot about a person from the company they keep. The same is undoubtedly true of business.

Last week’s re-election of Sepp Blatter was as much of a disaster for Fifa’s sponsors as it was for football.

And while the Fifa President evoked the image of Fifa as a ship ("we will bring it back ashore, we will bring it back to the beach"), right now that vessel looks more like the Titanic. It has been hit by a massive reputational iceberg and its sponsors look like doomed passengers.

But the global giants footing the bill for Fifa’s largesse are no prisoners. They have choices, and it is time they took a stand. It’s time for these brands to separate themselves from the toxic activity of Fifa. A failure to do so will inevitably cause irreparable damage in the eyes of the consumer. 

The election of Blatter can be seen as a vote to maintain the status quo. He has had over 16 years to sort the problems dogging Fifa. It stretches incredulity to the limit to believe that the organisation has found its reforming champion with the decision it has taken.

As the attorney general Loretta Lynch has said, reiterated by FA chief Greg Dyke, this vote – and the indictments of the nine officials – is just the beginning of Fifa's problems.

It all adds up to total trauma for the businesses backing Fifa. Their great hope was that their sabre-rattling ahead of the vote might have had some effect on the result – that a different president would move attention back on to the event of the World Cup itself. But instead, the Zurich re-election means the spotlight falls firmly upon the sponsors to see if they will do the right thing.

Three of the sponsors – McDonald’s, Coca Cola and Visa – have just been ranked as among the ten most valuable brands in the world in the BrandZ Global Report 2015, which was published last week. They need to not only take care of that reputation, but take action to show that business can be a force for good.

“To be more progressive around our social purpose in order to deepen our relationships with communities on the issues that matter to them,” said Steve Easterbrook, McDonald’s new CEO, in a recent interview. 

As McDonald's is a flagship Fifa sponsor, his words will only matter if belief is backed by determined action. Thus far, its pledge to “continue to monitor the situation very closely” looks insipid, because it is insipid. If Easterbrook’s vision can be distilled down to simply doing the right thing, then he must act. The Fifa debacle has underlined the importance of the need for brands to do more than just say what they think their customers want to hear. 

These brands are reputed to have invested £130m over four years, and they have a vested interest in making the World Cup a success. Their sponsorship has spearheaded the growth of Fifa into a multi-billion dollar empire. If they step away, they risk being sued and they risk opening the door for competitors to take their place.

But their investment might seem like small change if the stench engulfing Fifa contaminates them. These businesses want to be seen as purpose driven, beacons of integrity, a force for the fans. If they do nothing, they will end up being judged by the company they keep. The reason why a corporation sponsors sport is to get the affirmation and approval of the consumer. And in the court of public opinion, their ongoing involvement with Fifa will be seen as tacit approval of its practices.

In truth, there can be no excuse for the likes of Coca-Cola to express surprise at Fifa’s bad behaviour given the stack of recent evidence put forward by The Sunday Times, Panorama and almost every other news outlet. Regardless of what the courts rule, there can be no doubting the hearts and minds of the consumer: Fifa's reputation is rotten.

This latest instalment of the Fifa debacle only underlines the need and importance for brands to be resolute about the company they keep.

Michael Hayman is co-author of Mission: How the best in business break through, and co-founder of the campaigns firm Seven Hills.