The Sochi Olympics are less than two weeks away and one of the worlds largest, best known brands is facing a nightmare equal to scope of the upcoming Olympic Winter Games. Coke is probably the world’s best known soft-drink. The red bottle with the script writing on the side is identifiable in any language and available on every continent. Coke has been a sponsor of the Olympic Games since 1928, one of the longest sponsorship deals in history. It is estimated that a worldwide Olympic sponsor pays over $100 million for the rights to use the Olympic Rings on its products. Not only do Coke products sport the Olympic Rings, Coke is the only soft-drink beverage available at Olympic Venues. It is served in the Olympic Village and Olympic Media Center. One cannot go to an Olympic Games without seeing Coke everywhere. Today, Coke is synonymous with the Olympic Games, and it will be for many more years to come.
But, there is a problem: When Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an anti-lgbt propaganda bill into law back in June 2013, Olympic sponsors went silent. Coke, along with other sponsors, as well as the International Olympic Committee have played the bystander in Vladimir Putin’s assault on Russia’s LGBT citizens. Not to sound cliché, but the silence is deafening. The IOC has made many controversial decisions in the past about which cities should play host to the world’s largest sporting event. But, the decision to award the games to a sub-tropical, beach resort on the Black Sea in Russia is probably its most dangerous. Aside from Vladimir Putin’s power grab; Sochi is a stone’s throw away from the provinces of Chechnya and Dagestan, where Muslims have been fighting for independence for years against Russia’s religious intolerance. If that did not give sponsors pause, the enacting of the new propaganda law should have. Now, Coke, McDonald’s, General Electric, Panasonic, Omega and others are being seen as enabling Vladimir Putin. This has not gone unnoticed.
Protests have taken place over the past nine months to raise awareness of Mr. Putin’s war on his LGBT citizens. At the forefront of these protests is the hopes that Olympic sponsors will come out and take an active stance against hate. In the past month, those protests have gone viral, yet the response from major sponsors has been to play lip service to activists. These companies say they support equality, however; their actions are speaking louder than words. Instead of coming out in support of activists and their cause, McDonald’s and Coke have issued press releases by their public relations teams which has only made activists more angry.
What is a global Olympic sponsor to do? The press releases have been a good start, but there is more. Because these companies have such a large following and name recognition, it is not out of the realm of possibility to run an ad campaign featuring LGBT Olympic Athletes. Showcasing these athletes would go a long way in helping to mend fences. A stronger message of inclusion, formally denouncing the Russian law and stating these companies stand for equality for all human beings. If these multi-billion dollar corporations take a strong enough stand, it may move the International Olympic Committee to do the same, as their brand is what is in the hot seat as the games approach.