Last month, a grassroots social media campaign called for corporate sponsors to boycott the National Football League amid player suspensions for domestic violence and child abuse. The negative publicity threatened to overshadow the season, but the league kicked into action, traveling cross-country to convince sponsors they could make a bigger impact by working together.
The NFL has not lost any of its 30 official sponsors, despite some serious crises. In the last month, running back Ray Rice was released from the Baltimore Ravens and running back Jonathan Dwyer was put on leave from the Arizona Cardinals—both following charges of domestic violence—and Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted on a child abuse charge.
“We’ve been on planes, trains and everything else, as you can imagine,” Renie Anderson, the league’s SVP of sponsorship and partner management, told Fortune. She said that every conversation with each sponsor was personal. “We talked to our partners everyday. They’re looking for the NFL to do the right thing.”
Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL didn’t immediately take action—neither releasing the players from their contracts or addressing the issue of domestic violence – until growing public backlash pushed them to take a firmer stance. The league has since formed a committee to address domestic violence and sexual assault (staffed by four women) and, this month, is rolling out an education program for all 32 of its teams, according to Anderson. It’s also given media time during games for the past three weekends to NO MORE to air a mix of its public service announcements and has committed to funding for the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
“There’s not a single human that doesn’t think domestic violence is disgusting,” Anderson added.
But most of the damage control took place behind the scenes, leaving sponsors to face the public. Corporations from Microsoft (MSFT) to McDonald’s (MCD) spend millions of dollars every fall to reach the NFL’s 185 million fans, with the largest and most visible sponsors vulnerable to popular sentiment.
Pepsi (PEP), the league’s official soft drink brand, called for the league to create and implement “effective policies against domestic violence and child abuse” immediately, while Anheuser-Busch (ABI), the league’s beer sponsor, assured fans the company had shared its “concerns and expectations with the league.”
But no brand was censured like CoverGirl. An image doctored to give a model wearing a Baltimore Ravens shirt a black eye became an Internet meme, shared among thousands of Twitter and Facebook users. They all called for CoverGirl to take a stand against domestic violence.
Surprisingly, the meme—and CoverGirl’s refusal to renounce its sponsorship—actually helped the brand, according to Ammiel Kamon, EVP of products and marketing at Amobee, a digital marketing firm in Silicon Valley. Brand consumption for CoverGirl, measured by its number of mentions on the web, increased tenfold with the release of the image nearly four weeks ago; now, a surprisingly large portion of the mentions are positive.
“We see that often negative story lines create more headlines, more discussions and more consumption for brands,” Kamon said. “If the story line has a limited effect on perception, then a brand will see a rise in awareness with minimal brand equity damage.”
Kamon praised CoverGirl’s decision to work with the NFL as an effective strategy to address the problem while continuing to reap the advertising benefits. The brand posted on its Facebook page after the altered ad was circulated: “As a brand that has always supported women and stood for female empowerment, COVERGIRL believes domestic violence is completely unacceptable. We developed our NFL program to celebrate the more than 80 million female football fans. In light of recent events, we have encouraged the NFL to take swift action on their path forward to address the issue of domestic violence.”
Proctor & Gamble (PG), which owns CoverGirl, declined to elaborate on CoverGirl’s strategy for working with the league.
Radisson Hotels took the opposite approach. After Adrian Peterson was indicted for child abuse and his team said it would let him play the following week, Radisson suspended its sponsorship of the Minnesota Vikings. The brand got a short-term boost in publicity after its decision but may suffer from the lack of continued exposure it would receive as a sponsor, Kamon said.
Meanwhile, the NFL seems to be recovering from the hit to its reputation. During the week of Sept. 14 to 20, when news of the allegations against the players surfaced, the league was featured in three negative tweets for every positive one. Many of the tweets included hashtags such as #GoodellMustGo and #BoycottNFL. Now the ratio is one to one, says Kamon.
Ed Nakfoor, a brand consultant in Birmingham, Mich., says that the trajectory of the past four weeks attests to the fleeting nature of public sentiment.
“Where is the outrage now? Everyone’s on to the next issue.”
Rather than ignite a social campaign to get sponsors to stop advertising, he said, it’s more effective for fans to encourage sponsors to start a dialogue and fund an educational program to combat domestic violence. That, he said, will address the problem’s real root.