Brand reputation matters. At least that's what workers' rights advocates were hoping when they kicked off efforts earlier this week to get sponsors of FIFA—including Adidas, Kia, Hyundai, Gazprom, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Visa—to speak out against the appalling working conditions in Qatar, where new sports facilities are being built for the 2022 World Cup.
The plan, which includes using traditional media outlets as well as social media and letter-writing campaigns, seems to be gaining traction. Coca-Cola, Visa and Adidas have issued statements expressing concern about labor conditions there and urging FIFA, world soccer's governing body, and Qatar to make changes.
But, supportive statements aren't enough, say the activists. They're now focusing on the brands based in the U.S.—Coca-Cola, Budweiser, Visa and McDonald's—where the ongoing controversy hasn't been as prominently covered.
"We wanted to kick the campaign off in London where [the controversy] is front of mind," said Jaimie Fuller, chairman of sports clothing company Skins and a leader of the protestors. "Now, I'm here in the U.S. to speak with traditional media outlets to apply as much pressure as possible." The group is also hoping to get consumers to use social media to put pressure on the brands to push for changes.
"If you undermine the product the brands are sponsoring, you can create a kickback to their sensitivities," said Stephen Russell, coordinator of the advocacy group Playfair Qatar. "It's not just that we're targeting the brands themselves; we're pointing out to the brands that the product they're sponsoring is not what they signed up for."
The "horrific" working conditions in Qatar haven't changed, according to Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, who noted that her group initially tried to work with FIFA to improve them.
Burrow said activists will contact the brands that have issued statements "indicating the reputational risks associated" with FIFA sponsorship. "We'll follow up with them and ask what they are going to do," she said. "After three years, we've seen no change. What's their time frame in demanding change? At what point will they decide to withdraw as sponsors?"
Another tactic the activists are using is targeting the brands' CEOs and releasing their email addresses on Playfair Qatar's website.
"I've said I don't want to call a boycott," Fuller said. "The objective of this campaign is to not call a boycott, but if push comes to shove and they ignore us, if they don't do anything about it, that's probably next."
Timing is key to the campaign. By launching it so close to FIFA's May 29 presidential election, the activists hope FIFA sponsors might push for reform within the organization.
"Qatar is a slave state," Burrow said. "FIFA knows it is a slave state. The sponsors know it is a slave state. So they have a choice: Do they want to be associated with that, or don't they? That's the proposition we're putting forth to them."