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Coca-Cola’s Ricardo Fort: Tokyo Olympics next year set to be “great sign of the recovery of the world”

Ricardo Fort, Coca-Cola vice president of global sports partnerships. (Ricardo Fort)

Ricardo Fort, Coca-Cola’s vice-president of global sports partnerships, oversees one of the largest sports and entertainment sponsorship portfolios in the entire industry, a massive collection of worldwide assets for one of the world’s most venerable consumer brands that includes large-scale alignments with the International Olympic Committee, Fifa, Major League Baseball and the NCAA, among others. 

But the Covid-19 pandemic has cut short many of the brand’s 2020 sports activation plans, with key events such as March Madness, the start of the MLB regular season and the Tokyo Olympics all either cancelled or postponed. 

A veteran global sports marketer with prior stops at Visa, Groupe Danone, Kellogg, and Unilever on three different continents, Fort is now seeking to nimbly guide the brand into the industry’s tentative recovery. 

Among his more recent moves is an extension of the company’s presenting rights for Nascar’s officially sanctioned esports property, as well as a separate deal with emerging live-streaming platform #BeApp that calls for Coca-Cola to serve as the title sponsor of 100 concerts from artists’ homes between now and July, and includes a charitable component for the International Red Cross. 

Fort spoke with SportBusiness US editor Eric Fisher on how the Atlanta, Georgia-based company is navigating the public health crisis and eyeing the future prospect of better days.

How has your management of the brand’s sports marketing portfolio changed amid the ongoing pandemic?

It’s about understanding where sponsorships and marketing sit in the overall big picture, particularly as it relates to taking care of people and making sure the operation continues to run, which are our priorities. On the back end, as it relates to marketing and sponsorships, we’ve been quite busy in many different areas. One thing that is interesting is that the timing we work from for projects is usually very, very long.

Today, for example, we are busy working with Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics, working with Qatar for the Fifa World Cup. Those projects haven’t been impacted whatsoever. We continue to work with our teams in China, in the Middle East and so on. For the events happening now, ones that were postponed or cancelled, we’ve been spending time working with the partners and rights-holders to figure out how we can help them in re-planning. We’re working with our local teams in Japan [about the 2020 Summer Olympics postponed to next year], in Europe for the Euros that were also postponed. We’re working with our teams to redesign the plans and figure out how we’ll use the communication we developed in the future.   

How does that change your overall sponsorship strategy and the kinds of opportunities you prioritize?

There are some changes, but they’re not as dramatic as they might be for other companies. Because we are a sponsor of all these events, and have been for a long time and have contracts that will last ideally well beyond the crisis, we always take a very long-term view on everything we do. So, yes, the [Tokyo] Olympics were postponed. We know they will happen next year. We have a contract with [the IOC] until 2032. There are a few things in the short term that we had to adjust. But most of the work we have done, and I’ll use the Olympics as an example, is timeless. So we can still use most of our work for Tokyo next year. Of course, we’ll have to look at how consumer sentiment is going to evolve to make sure the messages we’re going to communicate next year are still totally relevant. But I would say most of it will be perfectly fine to use next year. So we’ve put a lot of things on hold, but we know that when we are back that we’ll be able to use most of it again.

There are some things in the short term related to operations that you have to pause and restart next year, things like the Olympic Torch Relay or the work that we do with the Tokyo Organizing Committee in concessions. For those types of things, the plans are ready, we know what we need to do, we’ve put everything on hold, and when the time is right, we’ll be back in implementation mode. 

What kind of change do you foresee with regard to evaluation of marketing efficacy and measuring return-on-investment?

We measure the return on investments in our sponsorships in a couple of different ways. There are a few measures related to the business performance, so we are capable of forecasting and tracking the sales volume, increases in revenues, business growth, profitability, and we do this by country, by brand, and have a pretty detailed model of how to predict and to track the actual results of activations. 

And then there is the other side of the ROI model which is about the impact of the events, the relationships we have, and the way that people see the brand. Do they like us more? Do they feel better being seen drinking our products, and all of that? We have a list of indicators that reflect the sentiment of people towards the brands so we also measure that. These are things that we measure for every event, and we are going to measure again next year. So the approach to ROI hasn’t changed. It’s just a move in the timing of how it’s happening. 

What is your level of optimism that the Tokyo Olympic Games will indeed come off and be what you originally intended them to be this year?

I’m very optimistic that when it happens, it’s going to be a great sign of the recovery of the world, and it’ll be a good way to celebrate the end of the crisis. We are very optimistic with that. 

The postponement means a much shorter gap between the Tokyo Games and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. How will that impact your brands?

From an operations standpoint, it is a little bit too close because some of the people that we have in Japan we were hoping would also work in China, and that may be a bit of a stretch for them. But other than that, the marketing campaigns are very similar, the approach to communications, the strategy, everything else is all very close. So the proximity of the two events, to some extent, benefits the use of the same campaign, and that’s a positive side. 

To add something on the people side, what we are doing in Japan will be slower over the next few months, so some of those people in Japan are now helping, consulting China to assist them in getting the work in China set up. So it’s about managing staff and managing activity. 

With respect to the North American team sports, in the short term we’re looking at some very different norms with attendance either at zero or severely curtailed, and many broadcast ratings conversely set to go way up. To what extent do those changes alter how you think about activations?

The presence or absence of fans in venue, of course, impacts the mood of the event. If you watch any event without fans, there is a piece of the action that is missing. But having said that, the vast majority of the benefits of sponsoring any of things that we do are happening remotely. We don’t sponsor the Olympics because of the people that are going to Japan or Major League Baseball because of the people that are going to watch baseball [in venue]. We do all of that because we know that by associating with them we can reach a lot of people through media, through different activities that we do. As long as the interest is there, people are watching and consuming remotely, it will still be possible to do the work that we need to do. 

There is a little bit of an impact on on-site consumption, of course, because there are fewer people attending. But we have other ways to compensate for that. 

During the pandemic, you’ve been active on the music front. What learnings have you taken from there that can be applied to sports?

It’s still early to comment on the results on the specific program that we’re doing with #BeApp, the streaming of the concerts. We’ve been doing this for two weeks. But the initial results are very positive. We see a lot of people engaging and what we are doing with this program is a combination of things. First, we are offering entertainment. We are combining this with support to communities with a partnership with the Red Cross. And we are also testing a model in which people are rewarded for their engagement with our content. The more you interact, the more benefits you get, and that can come in the form of merchandising, or access, or a shout-out from one of the artists. And this is a model that can be replicated in other areas of sports and entertainment. We are learning with that and hopefully will serve a model for us to do more digital-driven content in the future in other areas of our partnerships. 

We’ve also seen emergence of various sports properties not necessarily among the top tier of the traditional stick-and-ball entities. I’m certainly referencing esports, but there certainly have been others. To what extent, do you see opportunities in these areas for your brands?

The outreach of potential partners happens on an ongoing basis. We are constantly talking to people in the market. All the things that are a growing faster now are things that we either have evaluated and have talked to people before, so we were kind of aware. To give you an example, the partnership with #BeApp, we’ve been talking to them long before the coronavirus started. So when we launched into the crisis, we adapted the plans but we had identified them as a potential partner. The same is happening in other areas. 

The overall situation we are living in is pushing teams and leagues, rights-holders in general, to accelerate a lot of their development, and that’s great and adds a lot of value to partnerships. It’s all new tools in our toolbox. 

For you personally, your work relied a lot on being present at events and building relationships face-to-face. How has that been impacted by having to work remotely?

We, of course, were so accustomed to being physically present at events. And I think we convinced ourselves that that was the only way to do it. But over these now 11 weeks working from home, things are moving pretty well, and I think everybody’s adapting. The relationship piece can never be fully replaced by any virtual form of conversation. But I think it’s a good proxy for these weeks that we’re living in. Eventually, we will be back. But a lot of what we were doing before can be done virtually and is being done virtually.

The nature of the work that we do at Coca-Cola, because we are so international, is virtual by default. In a normal week in the office, my team and I probably spend 70, 80 per cent of our time in video conferences, conference calls with people abroad. So that hasn’t changed a lot, and I think we can navigate through these few months without much damage. And then eventually we’ll be back going to events and have to be on site anyway. But for now, we are not suffering as much as I thought we were going to a few months ago. 

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