The FIFA World Cup happens every four years and is one of the most watched events in the world. The Russia World Cup, starting Thursday, is expected to have 3.2 billion unique viewers. It’s a great opportunity for brands to gain visibility across the globe and associate with the top players and nations.
However, FIFA has had trouble filling its partnership portfolio for this year’s tournament. There is concern from many brands about associating with FIFA following its recent corruption scandal as well as about getting good value for money.
Sponsors are separated into three tiers:
- FIFA Partners: This is the top tier of sponsorship. Brands on this level get access to all FIFA events and association to everything FIFA. These sponsors are also involved in football development around the globe.
- FIFA World Cup Sponsors: The second tier of sponsorship gives the brand rights to the FIFA Confederations Cup and the FIFA World Cup. This tier gets association rights, marketing packages, as well as ticketing and hospitality. The Chinese mobile phone manufacturer Vivo became a FIFA World Cup Sponsor in June 2017 in a six-year deal worth—according to the Financial Times—about US$470 million (at about US$78 million a year).
- National/Regional Partners: The last tier is a localised sponsorship role with fewer rights to association rights, and some LED board exposure. It is priced at US$10 million and grants the sponsor rights limited to a specific country or region. Not surprisingly given the price points, of the 18 sponsorship slots available in this category, 13 are still available at the time of writing.
Sponsors are reluctant to become partners, as the very high costs are not justifiable anymore, especially considering the bad PR FIFA has received recently with its corruption scandal. In fact, several partners from the 2014 edition—Castrol, Continental Tyres, Johnson & Johnson, Sony, and Emirates—have chosen not to renew for the Russia World Cup.
Before the advent of social media, when the only way to view and engage with the tournament was through the official television broadcast, being an official and exclusive sponsor meant that your brand gained top mindshare.
That is just not the case anymore, as non-affiliated brands look to associate with the tournament in creative ways. FIFA is extremely strict on such practices, as it results in the dilution of value for its actual partners (not to mention dilution of its pricing power). So one would expect that FIFA partners and sponsor must be getting high ROI and differentiation from competition. Well, not quite. During the Brazil World Cup 2014, nearly 40% of consumers wrongly believed MasterCard, Nike and Pepsi were World Cup sponsors.
In reality Visa, Adidas and Coca-Cola were official tournament sponsors. As per the Global Web Index World Cup report, in the final days of the World Cup more than three people in 10 still mistakenly believed that Nike was a sponsor while a quarter and fifth respectively incorrectly thought the same about MasterCard and Samsung.
How is that possible? Visa paid millions of dollars to become a partner, while Master Card didn’t pay a single cent. The answer is ambush marketing, a marketing technique in which advertisers work to connect their product with a particular event in the minds of potential customers, without having to pay sponsorship expenses for the event.
In other words, in the digital age, it’s about storytelling more than having your logo as an official tournament partner. Since any brand can become a content creator, all you need is to have an association with players or teams that are playing in the World Cup and some creativity to develop a story that audiences can relate to and engage with on social media.
Nike did a fantastic ambush marketing campaign for the South Africa World Cup 2010. A few weeks before the World Cup started it launched the "Write the future" ad on its Facebook page. It featured top Nike-sponsored players such as Rooney, Ronaldo, Cannavaro and Drogba imagining playing a game of football in the future and wondering what would happen if they won or lost. Within one week Nike's Facebook following had doubled. The campaign was so successful that within five weeks the video had more than 20 million views!
According to Nielsen, during the 2010 World Cup Nike had the highest online social buzz amongst all brands (30.2%), more than double of its rival and official World Cup sponsor, Adidas (14.4%) because Nike came up with a campaign that featured top players, had a riveting story and engaged the audience.
While Nike’s campaign was of a global nature and used football players, Dutch beer Bavaria gained visibility from a very creative and on the ground guerrilla campaign during the 2010 World Cup, when it ambushed the official sponsor Budweiser. During the game between Denmark & Holland, 36 women in Bavaria-branded dresses (Dutchy Dresses) were removed from the stadium by FIFA officials. This created a huge scene with various news channels picking up the story. The beer company gained traction amongst beer-drinking men and fashion-sensitive women.
The Bavaria name and logo made headlines all over the world; the brand sold 200,000 dresses (three times more than expected), sales of Bavaria beer increased by 41% and the campaign generated about US$30 million worth of free publicity worldwide. Bavaria’s top-of-mind brand awareness and preference doubled, and the Bavaria promotion was declared ‘best promotion of a non- sponsor during the World Cup 2010’ (which is, appropriately, an unofficial award) .
For the Russia World Cup MasterCard and Visa have already started their marketing campaigns. MasterCard employed two of football's biggest names, Lionel Messi of Argentina and Neymar of Brazil, in a campaign that ran into some backlash.
Visa has its World Cup brand ambassador Zlatan Ibrahimović, who is not even playing in the World Cup, in an advertisement about travelling to the World Cup with Visa. Visa understands that it needs players around whom to create content and stories that audiences will engage with. However, what’s the point of being a FIFA Partner when Visa has to spend additional money to get players as brand ambassadors? Which brand do you think people will associate strongly with the World Cup? Most probably the one with players who are actually playing at the tournament.
Another brand associated with the Russia World Cup is Vivo, an official FIFA sponsor and the fifth largest mobile manufacturer globally. It has launched its first World Cup campaign 'My time, my FIFA World Cup' and is leveraging its FIFA assets to have its logo on tickets, billboards and press areas. Additionally, it will provide fans with lots of unique experiences. For in-market launches it brought in 1994 FIFA World Cup winner and Brazilian footballing legend Bebeto and former Dutch National and 1987 Ballon d'Or winner Ruud Gullit, while the advert itself has no football players in it. Considering competitor Oppo is a global partner with Barcelona FC and can use its players such as Messi, Suarez, Iniesta and Pique for no additional cost, how much value add is Vivo getting for forking out $78 million a year?
Since it's all about storytelling and content creation, Vivo could have partnered with a handful of elite football clubs and used their players, or partnered with a dozen elite footballers for that amount of money. Gullit and Bebeto were amazing players 25 years ago, but as retired pros they just don't have the star power of Messi and Suarez (whom Oppo will most definitely be using in its campaigns around the event).
The Russia World Cup is an amazing opportunity for brands to create an association with one of the top sports properties in the world. But why splurge the cash on becoming a World Cup partner when you can get similar recognition levels by developing content-based associations with the tournament through links with particular teams or players?
We look forward to seeing which brands come up with creative ambush campaigns in the coming weeks.
Wali Khan is founder and director of Sports Connect, a Singapore based sports marketing and athlete-management agency.