The fallout from Ronaldo removing Coca-Cola bottles from his press conference appearance shows the power of social norms to influence customer behaviour

Ronaldo, Coca-Cola and the power of social norms

With one swipe of his hand last week, soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo showed how powerful “social norms” can be when it comes to influencing how your customers behave.

During a press conference for UEFA’s Euro 2020 championship (not a misprint, they’re holding Euro 2020 in 2021… because Covid), Ronaldo removed two bottles of tournament sponsor Coca-Cola that were placed in front of him. Presumably responding to reactions from the watching journalists, he lifted a bottle of water in explanation: “Agua”.

The moment exploded across news outlets, with reports that the gesture wiped $4 billion off Coke’s share price. Turns out that wasn’t true – the drop in value happened, but before Ronaldo took the stage. Nevertheless the power of his action was evident from what happened afterwards.

More players started repeating Ronaldo’s new move, to the extent UEFA had to remind teams of their contractual obligations to the sponsor. And it remained a hot topic on social media for days.

Why? Social norms…

People talk a lot about expressing their individuality, but the truth is that in most matters humans don’t like to stand out from the crowd. We’re communal animals and our sense of how to act – what’s okay and what’s not – is shaped by what we see those around us doing. Studies have repeatedly shown we tend to conform to the pressure of social norms.

By dissing Coke, Ronaldo wasn’t just biting the hand that feeds him. He was challenging the social norm of consuming soft drink, and potentially promoting a “new normal”…

How do we decide what’s a social norm?

We identify what’s social “normal” in a number of ways. We might perceive it when we see people eating a new cereal in an ad. We might perceive it when we notice more of our neighbours getting solar panels.

Or we might perceive it by a popular celebrity using a product…

But Ronaldo’s action was especially powerful.

There are a number of reasons why this moment especially resonated around the world:

  1. Ronaldo’s loved and followed by half a billion people on social media. When he does something, people notice.

  2. His action appeared spontaneous and genuine, not a publicity stunt. So it carried the weight of authenticity – a true belief, rather than advertising manipulation.

  3. We’re so used to celebrities holding up products to sell them to us, that seeing a celebrity push one away has a perverse appeal. Again, impact through honesty.
  1. Ronaldo’s anti-Coke stance was paired with a simple positive action, easily emulated: drink water.

Coke did its best to spin the moment and contain fallout – but the damage was done. The most visible element of its Euro 2020 sponsorship will be an elite athlete saying he drinks water instead. And just as Ronaldo prompted imitation from his fellow soccer stars, how many kids who aspire to be soccer stars also swiped right on Coke last week to buy water instead?

Making your own Ronaldo…

Health advocates couldn’t have hoped for a better campaign if they’d planned it. Of course, we don’t all have Ronaldo or happy mistakes to push our businesses. So how can you use social norms to encourage people to back your endeavours?

Here’s just a few suggestions:

  • Brainstorm ways to turn your existing customers into amplifiers of your brand. (eg: a competition for spreading the word about you in the most imaginative way)

  • Status charts and “badges” for top fans/customers (eg who’s logged the most hours at your gym this week?)

  • Spotlight positive customer behaviour to show that’s the standard embraced by the majority of your customers.

  • Focus your marketing imagery of people using your product, rather than the product in isolation.

  • Where possible, pair your appeal with a higher purpose. For example, Ronaldo’s stand wasn’t just about a rival drink. It was about health.

  • For higher priced items, capitalise on sales by targeting follow-up marketing in same segments or geographical areas, where prospective customers will have just seen your product being used by their neighbours.

And one last side note…

For any of you who do have the budgets to be sponsoring an event: the Ronaldo incident is also a lesson to check with the talent before putting them in front of your product, so that any differences in opinion can be resolved out of the world’s gaze.

Need help with your marketing campaigns? We’re experts in emotion.

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