The 2018 FIFA World Cup presents a golden opportunity for the game’s best footballers and brands looking for a content ambush.
The football World Cup is the biggest, loudest, most expensive branding exercise ever devised. Every four years, billions of dollars of footballing stock carry the hopes of their passionate supporters (and millions of followers on social media). For a month, they don their sponsors’ kit and travel in first class across a country that spends billions showcasing their wares to a massive international audience.
It’s a World Cup for brands such as Adidas and Nike, too – a chance to gain a significant marketing edge on their rivals. World Cup matches attract fervent supporters to the ground and billions more football lovers to televisions and mobile devices across the globe, and they’re all smothered in expensive brand messaging.
But the World Cup is not just about footballers earning their place in history (while earning more of the sponsors’ dough along the way). It’s become a major social media event for the fans, too – the 2014 event in Brazil attracted 3 billion Facebook interactions. The Germany v Argentina final remains the single most talked-about game in Facebook history. With this kind of attention, it’s little wonder brands everywhere blow marketing and advertising budgets trying to gain maximum reach and attention.
This year’s event in Russia, however, presents an unknown quality. Geopolitical issues have undermined the world’s confidence in the host country’s ability to stage an event befitting the occasion. Between allegations of condoning the poisoning of a double agent on foreign soil and baiting the West over Syria, Russia President Vladimir Putin doesn’t present as the ideal frontman for a global charm offensive. Even Russia’s time zones are conspiring against them; most games will be played when 40 per cent of the world’s population should be asleep.
Then there’s football’s world body, FIFA, which loves to tiki-taka from one crisis to the next. Not helped by constant accusations of bribery and corruption, FIFA struggled to fill its three tiers of World Cup sponsorship and filed losses of $720 million in 2017, according to Marketing Week. Previous supporters Sony and Johnson & Johnson hopped off the World Cup sponsorship bus for 2018.
Melbourne Business School adjunct professor Mark Ritson is bemused by FIFA’s predicament. “It’s ironic that a tournament that has proven so successful in the past in building brand equity for a multitude of companies is now struggling because, beyond the issues of probity, financial transparency and ethics, it completely forgot about its own reputation,” Ritson wrote in Marketing Week.
It’s been said, too, that brands worried by terrorism and the threat of boycotts have shied away from committing to the event. And every major sponsor lost is a massive financial blow for the organisers and the game; analysts estimate they pay about US$100 million each for the privilege.
Celebrating the game
Despite the off-field issues, football has an amazing ability to unify nations for a common cause. The World Cup will be an undoubted triumph of skill and daring, as 736 players from 32 countries compete for the single most coveted trophy in sport. Brazil’s Neymar, Argentina’s Messi and Portugal’s Ronaldo are just three names that will dominate conversations across the globe until the final is played at Luzhniki Stadium from 1am (AEST time) on Monday, July 16.
According to a GlobalWebIndex survey of more than 80,000 people, 47 per cent of the global online population will watch the World Cup either online or on TV. YouTube was found to be the most popular social media platform to follow the World Cup, ahead of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Twitter.
“Consumers decide when they want it, at what point, in what platform and when it suits them,” says James Kirkham, head of football media network Copa90, in Marketing Week. “The content will sit there and people will decide when they consume it; brands who adjust to this will win.
“The World Cup will be as dispersed as it’s ever been – it will be fragmented, split up into little moments and because of time zones we will consume the game a bit like the blurb on the back off a book.”
The Adidas playbook
Sportswear giant Adidas showed what global brands could achieve with branded content at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. It created a live-streaming series over six episodes called The Dugout, plus real-time reaction videos.
Adidas’ World Cup content featured everything from Q&As with champion footballers to post-match recaps. It used pre-event footage to supplement real-time videos, and its final program had almost 19 million views. After the football carnival moved on, Adidas retained partnerships with YouTube creators and used regular updates to keep in contact with fans.
The Dugout also relied heavily on audience participation. It crowdsourced questions for Q&As and Google+ Hangouts with players and scanned YouTube comments and other social channels for trending topics to ensure its videos were relevant. Adidas employed community managers to respond to fans in several languages in YouTube comments and on Twitter.
Following the cup, Adidas Football’s senior global director Tony Ramsden explained the company’s social media goal. “The way we’re looking at YouTube now is an opportunity to turn ourselves from an advertiser to a publisher,” said Ramsden on a behind the scenes video for YouTube.
Beware the ambush
Of course, where there are massive audiences and brands prepared to pay big money to reach them, there are ambush marketing opportunities.
In Brazil, Beats by Dre released a five-minute YouTube clip called “The Game Before the Game”, which showed how some of the biggest names in football prepare for competition while listening to music on Beats headphones. Official sponsor Sony was not pleased. It’s said the last event also saw the emergence of the “social” ambush. Numerous brands (including Specsavers), for instance, posted jokes related to Uruguayan star Louis Suarez planting a bite on Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini’s shoulder.
It’s difficult to define the lines separating marketing and editorial content, just as it’s hard to know where commercial rights end and free speech starts. But legal fuzziness hasn’t stopped rights holders attempting to prosecute brands keen to steal the limelight from competitors who have paid millions of dollars to reach global audiences.
British law firm Lewis Silkin offers the following advice for non-sponsors looking to run branded content relating to the 2018 World Cup:
- Don’t use any official Russia 2018 or national team logos, protected terms, designs, images or footage
- Avoid material that otherwise seeks to associate with or ambush the World Cup. (The law firm suggests that if you would expect to see an official sponsor logo at the end or in the corner of the content, it’s likely to have crossed the line)
- Be cautious when using player or team imagery (you will likely need permission from the player or team first)
- Even using event hashtags or emojis repeatedly or systematically or re-posting content related to the World Cup or a national team might lead to legal action.
Lewis Silkin says that if there is “only a minor allusion or nod to the event” – such as a reference to football or Russia – the risk is much lower. So combining cossacks, Tchaikovsky and Tim Cahill is likely to land you in trouble.
The value of football
Even leaving aside its biggest show held every four years, football doesn’t need to prove its worth as a branding vehicle. A recent article in Fast Company showed how the recently crowned English Premier League champion, Manchester City, is equal parts sports team and media company. Its content and digital strategy tentacles stretch well beyond the north of England.
“Our strategy is quite forward-looking,” says Nuria Tarre, the chief marketing officer of the team’s parent company City Football Group. “Not only do you have to understand the various platforms and how to use them, you also need to know how to tell the stories that will set the right tone.
“We want fans to get a real sense of the club, the players, and what goes on in training and elsewhere. It’s always about trying to find more ways to bring fans closer to the club.”
The City Football Group owns or partially owns many teams around the world – including Manchester City, New York City and Melbourne City. It invests big money in high production values and works with influencers inside and outside football.
“The No.1 objective for each of the clubs is to engage with their own fans,” Tarre says. “Of course, there are a lot of synergies and opportunities to learn faster about trends and test things in a much faster way. But it’s not about creating fans of City Football Group – it’s New York, Melbourne, and Manchester City fans.”
May the best content win.
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