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It Didn’t Start with a Kiss: The Spain Soccer Scandal Exposes Brand Misbehavior


What took the Royal Spanish Football Federation so long? Asks Laura Thomas, SVP, head of strategy at PETERMAYER

It Didn’t Start with a Kiss: The Spain Soccer Scandal Exposes Brand Misbehavior

Twenty two days after the historic win of the Spanish women’s soccer team victory and Luis Rubiales’ infamous, unsolicited kiss, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) President finally stepped down.  He doesn’t seem to be the least bit contrite about his personal behavior, citing his action as his concern for the Federation, the sport, and Spain’s chance at a future World Cup.  

But perhaps the ongoing criminal investigation also led to his decision to cut bait. 

Last week, the RFEF announced that they were firing Coach Jorge Vilda, who led the women’s soccer team to victory but who caused his own public problems. Even as they fired him, they praised him.

At the same time, the Federation finally offered a full-throated apology for Rubiales’ “totally unacceptable behavior” and voiced their deepest regret, acknowledging the damage to Spanish football and society. 

That took 16 days.  A textbook case on how to damage your own brand. 

A brief look back. On August 20, for the first time in history, the Spanish women’s soccer team hoisted the World Cup trophy with a 1-0 win over England — an achievement that has been overshadowed by a very misguided personal gesture then compounded by the missteps of the Spanish Football Federation.

If summer has distracted you and you haven’t yet heard, Luis Rubiales, President of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, forcibly kissed player Jenni Hermoso on the mouth during the post-game trophy ceremony. The fallout was immediate, but in a summer that’s positively brimmed with female empowerment, the Federation’s leaders downplaying the incident did significant harm.

In advertising terms, we have been witnessing an extraordinary act of brand misbehavior.

As marketers, we celebrate brilliant brand behavior, like when McDonald's creates a promotion based on their celebrity fans' favorite meal; when Apple designs an unboxing experience that's as sleek as the device you're purchasing; or, when the Faroe Islands playfully own that they are home to more sheep than human residents.

But it is as important for us to speak up when brands misbehave.  

In this case, the bad behavior is tied to one man’s aggression, but the fallout extends to the entire Spanish Federation—and could taint even FIFA itself. I’ll walk through the timeline shortly, but first, as a strategist, let’s compare how they talk about their values to  how they behave. 

The Royal Spanish Football Federation’s website articulates values of service, transparency, respect, integrity and excellence. Yet sexism has a long, public history in Spain’s women’s soccer program. Just last year, players raised protests around the team’s culture, including coach Jorge Vilda’s “patronizing, authoritarian style, reportedly checking their shopping bags and monitoring their whereabouts,” according to The New Yorker. Players were dismissed from the team; Vilda kept his job. 

So, it’s clear enough that the Federation was in breach of its values well before the World Cup kickoff. But as the final loomed, players hoped that a championship would change things, that their success on the field would cement their status alongside the vaunted men’s side.
In my 20 years as a strategist, and particularly during my time here at PETERMAYER, I’ve always stressed to clients that their values must drive the way their brand behaves in the world. So, it’s interesting to note how close the characters in this story embody their Federation’s stated vision:
Jenni Hermoso is backed by female players and a few male players.  Solidarity. The men’s soccer team publicly condemned Rubiales.  A late and fast scramble to solidarity
Luis Rubiales calls Hermoso a liar.  Lack of transparency, integrity and accountability.
Jenni Hermoso described Luis Rubialies’ actions as an impulse-driven, non-consensual, sexist out-of-place act. 
The Federation first threatens legal action against Hermoso, accusing her of lying.  But when they felt the public outrage, they had a sudden change of heart.  Lack of transparency, respect or integrity.

Ironically, the players articulated the Federation’s values well, while its leaders continued a pattern of disrespect toward their own stars. The seeds of this public relations crisis weren’t sown on a soccer field but in an office where values were agreed upon, but neither followed nor held to account. The global stage ripped the hypocrisy open for all to see.

This incident, of course, isn’t isolated, neither for its sexism nor its bad brand decisions in the face of crisis. But it is getting harder for brands to ignore the disparity between talk and action. On the flip side, brands with integrity not only find their audiences but keep them.  From the blockbuster tours of Taylor Swift and Beyonce’s to the record-breaking Barbie box office, people are voting with their dollars to support artists and brands whose behavior resonates with their values.

The crisis and chaos of women’s World Cup is a prime example of what awaits brands who turn in the other direction. The long-term effects on Spanish soccer can’t be known. Feminist leaders across the country hope that it may lead to a broader national reckoning about sexism and machismo in Spanish society. Prosecutors are beginning a sexual assault investigation. 

For brands the lessons are clear: Your values aren’t defined by what you put on paper or post on your website. They’re apparent in the way you behave in the world. If you want to be a leader, act like one —  don’t wait to see which way the wind blows. 

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