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Sports Marketing

Desperate to avoid backlash, sports brands choose silence. It’s time to talk up


By Dan Parker, Group editorial director

May 22, 2024 | 7 min read

With a huge summer ahead, We Are Social Sport’s Dan Parker explains why brands must act more decisively this year.

Braving the backlash

When spikes in online hate create a cacophony of noise on social media, brands cannot afford to remain silent. Silence is complicity; the victims of discrimination hear this just as loudly as the hate itself. We know that either staying silent or issuing a catch-all statement feels like the ‘safe play’ for brands who want to avoid controversy. It is no longer good enough.

We saw this play out on social media when L’Oréal hired and fired Munroe Bergdorf after she shared her views on racism in a Facebook post. The ongoing legacy of its alleged mistreatment of the transgender model and activist continues to shape perceptions of the brand. It was also criticized for its silence on the issue. When L'Oréal offered a message of solidarity to the Black community after the murder of George Floyd, users flooded their statement post, and Bergdorf went one step further, accusing it of ‘racial hypocrisy.’

This is symptomatic of a growing trend we are seeing, where brands are so desperate to avoid doing the wrong thing that they avoid doing the right thing too. Six years ago, when we published our first Braving the Backlash report, taking a stand against discrimination with a considered reply to a hateful comment demonstrated considerable progress on social media. In the current climate, a more discerning, social-native audience sees such action as hollow and meaningless. Not only that, but the affected communities and victims of online discrimination will call brands out for it.

Ahead of a busy summer of sport – with both Euro 2024 and the Paris Olympics and Paralympics on the horizon – we know brands will be looking to support both the athletes they sponsor and the loyal communities who follow them on social media. Our new report, ‘Braving the Backlash: How Sports Brands Can Take a Stand on Social,’ provides actionable guidance for brands who want to support communities suffering discrimination online. Sadly, after investigating the data from previous years, we can predict that there will be a significant spike in online hate during these tournaments - and brands are far from ready to deal with it sufficiently.

Using Brandwatch, we tracked online mentions of major football tournaments and the Olympics in conjunction with terms relating to issues such as racism, transphobia, and homophobia and spotted a 32% increase in hate speech during international football tournaments and a 34% increase during the Olympics. When it came to football, negative sentiment was its apex around the issue of racism, whereas the peak of online hate for the Olympics was anti-trans discrimination. This lays bare the need for brands to show genuine solidarity to communities at all times, but especially when the world’s attention is fixed on these major sporting events.

For this report, we explored how discrimination on the grounds of race, sexuality, and gender identity has changed on social media over the past few years. When it comes to racist abuse, there was an influx of brands rushing to make noise around the Black Lives Movement three years ago. Football clubs carried out a host of acts that sought to do good, from social media blackouts to players taking a knee before Premier League games. Since then, it’s gone very quiet. The continued abuse that Vinicius Jr faces from fans, compounded by criticism in the media, illustrates the slow progress made. It is not an isolated incident. Reports of racist abuse on social media increased three-fold in 2022/23 compared with the previous season. The discrimination hasn’t gone away, but the show of support from brands has.

For brands looking ahead to this year’s Olympics and Paralympics, there is an opportunity to tell celebratory stories about what has long been touted as the largest gender-equal sporting event in the world.

Yet, while there will be plenty of barrier-breaking moments around gender equity and athletes’ sexuality, the relationship between brands and the trans community has been contentious. Bud Light’s sponsorship of the trans activist and creator Dylan Mulvaney epitomizes the danger of a brand choosing to hide its head in the sand when online hate surfaces. Mulvaney’s appearance in a Bud Light campaign resulted in extreme hate and aggressive calls for boycotts. Rather than supporting Mulvaney, Bud Light announced it was going to refocus its marketing away from LGBTQ+ issues, towards music and sport. Mulvaney would later say that, ‘for a company to hire a trans person and then not publically stand by them is worse, in my opinion, than not hiring a trans person at all’.

So, what can brands do?

In our Braving the Backlash report, we identify a three-step process that will help brands tackle online discrimination. The first step is always preparation; creating an anti-hate policy built on the ‘Three Rs Model’ - Remain, Reply and Report. Our third step must be to create bespoke for each specific event based on tailored audience research, but perhaps the key step of the process is the middle one, collaboration.

As a cisgender white man, I may be able to empathize with the communities detailed in our report, but I cannot relate to their firsthand experience of discrimination. This is why it was so crucial that we built this report on a foundation of listening to voices from the relevant communities and working alongside industry-leading experts such as Troy Townsend MBE, Liz Ward, and Aby Hawker.

Every expert we spoke to agreed that brands are not doing enough to listen to the athletes they sponsor, co-create social and grassroots change alongside them, and support them when they suffer online hate. As we approach the first game of Euro 2024, kicking off a busy summer of sports, it is time for sports brands to step up and stop playing it safe.

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