Sports brands and the national psyche - the downfall of the 'Weet-bix' kid

Once the ‘Weet-bix kid’, Steve Smith is now most likely to be seen fronting campaigns for another of Australia’s well-known brands, Bunnings Warehouse, selling sandpaper. That self-mockery worked wonders for Gareth Southgate after his missed penalty in Euro ’96 for England, when he embraced his failure in adverts for Pizza Hut. But Gareth Southgate was playing by the rules, trying his best to win fairly for his country. Steve Smith and co broke the rules and, in doing so, put not only their reputations at stake, but also the reputation of their country.

Australia, and its people, are proud of their sporting traditions and their sense of honesty and fair play. Even their national anthem is called Advance Australia Fair. The identity of their sporting teams and the nation have happily gone hand in hand for decades, and this works wonders when both are riding high, but when one falters it indelibly affects the other.

The recent ball tampering scandal expectedly led to worldwide headlines on the back pages, but also caused front page scandal. The Australian Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was forced to comment, not only apologising for the impact on the game of cricket which he described as “a game that is synonymous with a fair go and fair play”, but also describing the impact on the nation, saying it was “a shocking affront to Australia.” Note that he speaks of the nation as a whole, rather than just the team. It’s also interesting that the Australian trade, tourism and investment minister, Steven Ciobo, admitted that the ball tampering scandal was discussed with UK Trade Secretary Liam Fox during a meeting on post-Brexit trade agreements.

Both the players involved, and the Australian cricket team as a whole, have suffered direct financial consequences as a result of the scandal, with several sponsors terminating their deals including Weet-bix manufacturers Sanitarium, and Commonwealth Bank, severing their ties with Steve Smith whilst Magellan Financial Group ended its sponsorship of domestic test-match series after just one year of a three year deal.
Qantas suffered potentially the biggest loss in terms of reputational damage, saying the actions were “not acceptable to the rest of the world.” Not only did the association as the major sponsor of Cricket Australia mean that its logo was seen on news stations and in newspapers in association with the players involved, but the scandal also coincided with the introduction of its new non-stop route from London to Perth, taking the gloss off this major launch.

As the sponsors of the Australian Rugby Union team as well, Qantas suffered a second negative association after a key player, Israel Falau, made negative comments on social media about LGBT+ people. Yet again, Qantas was forced to make statements to defend its brand and disassociate its brand values from those people and teams that it sponsors. As vocal supporters of same-sex marriage in Australia and the comments made by Falau were therefore not only out of line with the Qantas message, but starkly opposed to it.

John Illsley, branding specialist and commentator at Moore Stephens, says: “Brands benefit significantly from the additional exposure they receive from sponsorship deals and having brand ambassadors, but the risks involved are greater than just the financial investment in sponsorship deals. Synergies either naturally exist or are created between the brand values of companies and those individuals and teams that they choose to promote them. The behaviour of these individuals and teams must therefore be seen to be in line with the brand values of the company. Brands don’t want to be lampooned in the public space for support for disgraced celebrities or teams. We have all seen brands recover from knocks in the past, but this will take a sustained effort to bring the Australian public back on side.”

In the symbiotic world of sponsorship, one party is always reliant on the actions of the other. The hope is that both sides pull each other up, rather than one side pulling the other down. There is a difference between being associated with a scandal and being the cause of it. Will major brands want to be associated with Steve Smith and the Australian Cricket Team in the future? Much will depend on how well they are doing on the pitch, as we all know that brand value is fickle and brands are keen to be associated with winners, as long as they don’t cheat to win.

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