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Sponsors Qatar World Cup set to follow ING

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Sponsors linked to the Qatar World Cup are set to follow Dutch banking powerhouse ING and grab a "PR coup" by snubbing corporate tickets to the competition over human rights concerns, experts believe. 

With kick-off just months away, the organisers of the controversial 2022 World Cup are facing the embarrassment of empty corporate boxes, as brands eschew the event. Not only is Qatar a country with a population of just 2.8million and few economic benefits to many sponsors, it's also synonymous with human rights violations, abuse of migrant workers and criminalising homosexuality. In light of these headwinds, experts say sponsors associated with the World Cup want to boost their purpose-marketing credentials by "playing the human rights card" and making a public stance that they will not take corporate tickets. 

Qatar World Cup plagued by issues
From the moment that Sepp Blatter, then FIFA-president, astonished the world by announcing Qatar had scooped the rights to host the tournament, criticism has been rife over the decision. Some questioned how such a small country that had never competed in a World Cup had won such a prize while others slammed its human rights record, its strict anti LGBTQ+ laws and its treatment of migrant workers. Despite the backlash, and media reports highlighting some of these issues and questioning Qatar's suitability as a host nation, broadcasters, sponsors and other commercial partners have largely remained supportive of the event. Arguably, this could be because the negative stories about Qatar have not gained sufficient traction to unnerve and derail sponsors and other commercial partners. That said, experts say sponsors continue to closely monitor the situation, frightened of the prospect of a negative hashtag linked to their brand.Brands are acutely aware that a George Floyd-type moment could catapult Qatar to headline news for all the wrong reasons.

Top FIFA-partners make cautious public statements on Qatar
FIFA has signed up six brands for its £25m partners package for the Qatar World Cup: Adidas, Coca-Cola, Wanda Group, Hyundai, Qatar Airways and Visa. Adidas and Coca-Cola are amongst those that have made public statements on Qatar's human rights issue. Adidas said it takes its ethical responsibilities seriously and that it has "engaged with our partners to improve the human rights situation in Qatar". Coca-Cola, meanwhile, said that it expects "FIFA to continue working with Qatar and future host countries to ensure human rights, including workers' rights and safety are respected" adding that it was "closely monitoring those efforts".

Pugnacious stance by team sponsors
But other brands linked to the World Cup have taken a more pugnacious stance. For example, several sponsors of the Dutch team, including ING, KPN, the telecommunications firm and the Dutch state lottery Nederlandse Loterij have all said they will not be taking clients to the competition. "The human rights situation is the reason why we are not doing anything at this tournament," an ING spokesperson told Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf. Similar, a raft of sponsors of the Belgian football team, including Côte d'Or, the chocolate maker, and courier service GLS have also said they will not take up their ticket allocation either. Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant has reported that ING is heavily involved in funding many projects and firms in Qatar that are directly and indirectly linked to the World Cup. ING said it was "worrying" that it was financing firms responsible for labour rights violations but it did not stop the funding, the paper reported. Meanwhile, Amnesty International is urging sponsors to use their influence to press the Middle East to make reforms.

Black Lives Matter comparison
The Black Lives Matter movement, which grew after high-profile killings by police in the US, promoted many brands to raise their voices with the protesters, including Coca-Cola and Adidas. Coke pledged $25m in grants from the Coca-Cola Foundation for the Equal Justice Imitative to help advocates and policymakers in the work of criminal justice reform, among other reforms. Adidas, meanwhile, in 2020 said it would invest $120m over the next four years in black communities and fill 30 per cent of its current job openings with someone black or Hispanic.

While the BLM movement and the Qatar World Cup are not like-for-like events, they do share common ground in that inequality and the absence of human are central themes to both. And some have wondered why, in an age of purpose-driven marketing, Adidas, Coke and other top tier World Cup partners have been less active on Qatar compared to the BLM movement

Today's consumers demand actions match words
Amar Singh, senior vice-president for MKTG Sport and Entertainment, said: "If they [a brand] has taken a strong position on things like Black Lives Matter, the consumer today demands the actions of a brand and organisation matches the communication. "You can't come out and say your stand for something and not actually do something positive." . Rupert Pratt, sales and marketing director EngageCraft, the digital fan engagement firm, points out that a reason for the inaction of some FIFA-partners over Qatar's suitability as a host nation could be the likes of Hyundai, Wanda Group and Qatar Airways are Asian brands, which might not have the same onus on CSR as Western brands.

Brands to face heightened pressure to show their hands
But Steve Chisholm, founder and managing director Run Communications, the sport sponsorship agency, believes, as the competition nears, brands will face more pressing questions about their position on issues like human rights violations and the abuse of migrant workers in the Gulf country. Chisholm said: "I think the pressure will increase over the coming months for them to offer more public statements about how things could perhaps improve. "I do believe that working in partnership with FIFA and the host nation is the way to try and create a better environment but I think there will be more direct questions asked about those leading brands and what their position is." Pratt says the stance taken by ING is "slightly convenient", given that Qatar is not "necessarily a huge World Cup host nation". Pratt adds: "If I am an FA sponsor, how incentivised am I to send employees and potential customers to Qatar? Probably less so."

Could players make a stance on Qatar?
If not a sponsor, then an individual player may make a public statement during the World Cup criticising Qatar as the host nation.This has already happened to some degree. Players from Germany, Norway and the Netherlands have worn T-shirts voicing their concerns over human rights in Qatar ahead of their World Cup qualifying games. Meanwhile, England manager Gareth Southgate questioned the Gulf country's treatment of migrant workers and said it would be a "great shame" if some fans didn't travel to the tournament over safety concerns. Singh says: "This generation of footballers are aware of the power of their platform and they stand for what they believe in." He said he would not be surprised if a well-known football commented on some of the issues surrounding Qatar during the tournament. Chisholm points to the "powerful" example of Tom Daley, speaking after his Olympic gold at the Tokyo Olympics, who said 'I feel incredibly proud to say that I am a gay man and also an Olympic champion', as a template for other stars to follow. Chisholm said: "I don't want to see players feeling that it's not there responsibility to have a view on social issues, I think it is. "Anybody who is passionate about any those social issues, it would be wonderful to see them being more visible and more front-footed approach." 

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