At a press conference during the Euro 2020 soccer championship, Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo made a point of moving two bottles of Coca-Cola away from him and off-camera. Then he held up a bottle of water, saying “Água!”–“Water!”–in Portuguese.
Ronaldo is known for adhering to healthy eating. He avoids all sugary beverages and says he gets annoyed when his children drink the stuff. So his objection to sharing the spotlight with Coke bottles really isn’t surprising. He got some very public support from Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady, who attributes his own legendary football career to healthy eating.
Ronaldo’s move caused a media and social media uproar that was soon dubbed “Bottlegate.” Some news sites linked his rejection of the beverage to a $4 billion slide in Coke’s valuation that same day, although the events are likely unconnected. At least two other players made similar moves. Italian player Manuel Locatelli shoved aside Coke bottles and said “Water!” in Italian, and French player Paul Pogba, a Muslim who does not drink alcohol, moved a bottle of Heineken off-camera as well. It was reportedly non-alcoholic, but looked much like a regular beer.
None of these beverages were there by accident, of course. Both Coca-Cola and Heineken are longtime sponsors of Euro 2020 and other high-profile soccer events. It’s fair to say this isn’t what they were hoping for when they signed those big checks to UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, which puts on Euro 2020.
There are a few good lessons here that any smart business leader can learn.
1. Celebrities have minds of their own.
Famous athletes can give your product or company a huge boost. Just ask the Away Luggage founders what partnering with Serena Williams has done for them. But star athletes are people and they have their own values and beliefs. They may be well aware of the power that their names and images hold–especially if they’re in the midst of a high-profile tournament. It was probably foolish to think someone like Ronaldo, who’s advocated healthy eating for years, would even passively endorse a beverage he won’t let his own kids drink. The most surprising thing about all this may be that it hasn’t happened before.
2. Don’t lose your cool.
Coke’s reaction to the whole affair has been impressively restrained. UEFA issued a bland statement in response to Ronaldo’s gesture, merely saying that “everyone is entitled to their drink preferences.” Given Coke’s sponsorship of the games, it seems highly likely that statement was drafted with the company’s approval, and when asked for comment, its representatives directed NBC to UEFA’s statement and said Coke had nothing to add.
It might have been tempting to issue a snarky comeback, as Amazon might have done. But Coke executives are smart enough to know that would only add fuel to the fire. After Pogba and Locatelli pushed bottles away as well, UEFA issued a second statement, saying it had “reminded participating teams that partnerships are integral to the delivery of the tournament and to ensuring the development of football across Europe.” It added that participating national leagues had contractual obligations around sponsorships. This was slightly less bland than UEFA’s first statement. But the tournament organizers may have wanted to make sure there would be no further bottle-pushing.
3. Don’t cling to a product whose time has passed.
Even if you’re a company as huge and powerful as Coca-Cola, you can’t turn back time. The fact is that over time, sales of fizzy, sweet soft drinks are declining, despite a temporary pandemic-related uptick. Industry experts have long encouraged companies like Coke to expand beyond sweetened soft drinks and that’s just what the beverage maker has done. Ironically, one of its big categories is indeed bottled water–the company owns both Dasani and Smart Water. Investors know this, which is one reason it seems unlikely that Ronaldo’s move would have affected Coke’s stock price.
One big takeaway from Bottlegate is that you must recognize trends and move with the times, even if you have an iconic brand. The other is that, in today’s influencer-driven world, no one should expect star athletes–or anyone else–to push a product they don’t believe in.