Brazil 2014 was a tournament of two halves. While the on-field action was rightly celebrated as the best World Cup ever, off-field it was controversial in the extreme.
We learnt that England are still rubbish at football and that Germany always perform. But we have also learnt that brands that sponsor sporting events can no longer sit in the stands and say "nothing to do with me, gov" when the tournaments they support are controversial.
In 2014, if your brand is slapped all over the stadium and/or the team shirts or you use athletes as spokespeople, then it is very much something to do with you.
Social media and global access to news from host countries means that allegations of corruption, excessive expense and news of protests can have major implications for the brands that simply want to be part of the uplift and excitement that top level sport brings with it.
With the next wave of big global sporting events being hosted by Brazil (the Rio Olympics in 2016), Russia (2018 World Cup) and Qatar (2022), brands need to learn the lessons from this World Cup.
Millward Brown tracked attitudes to attitudes to sponsors, FIFA and the tournament in general in both UK and Brazil, before and after the event. We found that not only was there an astonishingly high level of awareness of the negative issues around the hosting of such an expensive event in a country where so many people have so little (in Brazil) but also that these concerns were also well understood in the UK.
Sponsorship has moved on from the days when brands simply slapped a logo on an event and left it at that. It is increasingly part of an integrated campaign that could be designed to build engagement, create business relationships or even build corporate social responsibility credentials rather than simply boost awareness.
As such brands need to take a more proactive relationship with the event that consumers perceive them to be part of. That’s because negative perceptions can very easily spread to its corporate supporters. We found a distinctive difference in attitudes to brands between consumers who are aware of the negative aspects of the tournament and those that are not.
In Brazil much of the opprobrium was aimed at the Government and FIFA but in the UK, they were far more likely to share the blame with sponsors (in addition to having a low opinion of FIFA).
Such negative opinions had a very real impact on these brands and the value they were able to achieve from their sponsorship in the run up to the event.
Instinctive positivity of those consumers most aware of the negative issues surrounding the tournament dropped by a factor of six for McDonald’s and from 0.13 to -0.02 for Coke.
To be fair brands such as Sony, Adidas, BP and Budweiser, Coca-Cola and Hyundai/Kia have expressed public concern about the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar and the corruption that is alleged to have contributed, but very often such statements are made in a reactive manner rather than as a proactive policy.
The key for brands going forward - especially given the fact that world sport is returning to Brazil for Rio 2016 – is that they can no longer claim to be ignorant or not have a policy in place that allows them to be on the front foot.
The tightrope they will have to walk will be making a stand in an authentic manner, that balances the behind the scenes conversations with the need to comment in public as well.
From now on, just pressuring FIFA (or any other global sporting body) to change privately won't be enough, brands need to be seen to be acting on the side of the public. However, the worst thing they could do would be to protest "just for show".
These lessons should have been learnt at Sochi earlier this year and after Brazil 2014 consumers will be less forgiving and brands will appear reactionary if they don’t take action.
These issues are clearly challenging to manage and sponsoring brands will have to walk a careful line at Rio 2016, the World Cup in Russia in 2018 and the 2022 tournament in Qatar.
Sarah Walker is global director of Millward Brown's Neuromarketing practice.
(This article first appeared on www.marketingmagazine.co.uk)