Sponsorship perception : Coca-Cola & COP

coke cop greenwash

The genie is out the bottle

We weren’t alone in calling out the negative implications of Shell’s sponsorship of British Cycling last month – although perhaps in a small minority for taking a purely sponsorship lens to the issue. One reason for our focus on this story was our belief that public perception of sponsorship by companies considered to be in the worst category of ‘polluters’ is changing fast – and as pressure ramps up for changes  to address the climate crisis at every level of society and business, this change will only accelerate.

Integrity Series Treadmill | Life Fitness proviron australia gym tonic – fitness center

In part, this is down to the psychological process of scapegoating. But it’s also a reaction to the intrinsic nature of how sponsorship changes perceptions. The position of sponsor is intrinsically positive and supportive. Even if we’re aware of the strongly commercial nature of the underlying transaction and that ‘partnership’ is often just a contract in fancy dress;  sponsors in most cases are still perceived as resourceful, robust and significant; enterprises to be taken seriously and, if only marginally, sympa.

When our implicit perception of this relationship is challenged by suspicion of sponsor motives – we react strongly. The more prominent the sponsorship, the stronger the reaction.

So hot on the heels of Shell and British Cycling comes another shocking example : Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of COP 27.

Once again, just to call out, the point of this article is not to condemn Coca-Cola – it’s to call the sponsorship out as bad practice, a warning example of what can go wrong if your sponsorship doesn’t truly align with your ESG – and if you as brand or rightsholder misread the changing mores.

The arguments made why Coca-Cola shouldn’t sponsor COP 27 are largely down to the scale of its environmental performance. If you’re interested, here are a few very clear articles in: Reuters, The Financial Times, The Guardian and Greenly.. The two rhetorical planks of the argument are : Coca-Cola is considered the world’s largest plastic polluter and its use of virgin plastic is still increasing (along with Pepsi and Mars), as opposed to businesses like Nestle, Unilever and L’Oreal, which have managed to reduce theirs.

Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of COP27 – the global forum to discuss and agree on climate action – clearly undermines COP 27. Although the sponsorship will have zero impact on the COP’s outcomes, it is already providing an unnecessary distraction, as environmental groups line up to take potshots.

For Vodafone, BCG, Siemens and other partners, Coca-Cola’s presence is also unlikely to detract from the value they generate – but again it provides an unhelpful source of noise and distraction, and calls into question the role and legitimacy of all sponsors.

The sponsorship isn’t present on Coca-Cola’s global site

While the sponsorship of some areas of each COP is centrally managed, such as the Innovation and Resilience Hubs and while brands can associate with UN Climate Change events through the central UNFCCC partnership team, sponsorship of the main Conference is managed locally. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry is the co-signatory to the sponsorship agreements.

Most government departments have a very skewed notion of sponsorship. With relatively little contact with the practice, sponsorship value is largely seen through the lens of corporate reputation. So, as patronising as it sounds, I’m not surprised that the Egyptian Foreign Ministry thought they were onto a good thing.

I am surprised however by Coca-Cola – and this relates to the point about values in transition.

Coca-Cola Global Vice-President, Public Policy and Sustainability Michael Goltzman launched the sponsorship with the stalwart but ultimately meaningless phrase: “Through the COP27 partnership, the Coca-Cola system aims to support collective action against climate change.”

In its ability to miss the bigger picture, Michael’s comment is reminiscent of the immortal line of Bea Perez, Coca-Cola’s Head of Sustainability in 2020: ‘People still want plastic bottles.’

I’m imagining that sponsorship of COP didn’t go anywhere near Amber Steele and her team – but Coca-Cola must have known this is a sponsorship with visibility not just in Egypt, but everywhere. They must have anticipated perception of the sponsorship and the response from environmental groups and media around the world. They must have known how weak and vulnerable their position would be. So it’s hard to imagine value for Coca-Cola, beyond the momentary feel-good and positive perception as a good corporate team player within Egypt.

The larger point : as you’d imagine, it’s the environmental group that are shouting loudest, but ask yourself if this sponsorship feels right or wrong. Ask yourself how you feel about your perception of this sponsorship? Ask yourself if this matters? And ask yourself how you’d have cared if this happened five years ago?