China does not have a team qualified for the #2018FIFAWorldCup yet the presence of China Inc is both glaringly obvious and subtle at the same time. The FIFA mascot 'Zabivaka' and its wolf-like accessories, trophy replicas and official match balls are all made in China, while Chinese brands Wanda, Hisense, Vivo, Mengniu, Yadea, Luci and Diking are all sponsors at various levels.
Chinese sponsors accounted for seven out of 20 names on FIFA's commercial roster this year, breaking the usual domination by US and Japanese brands, who were turned off by recent FIFA corruption scandals. Undeterred Chinese sponsors think of it differently: the World Cup remains the mightiest international sporting event, as Vivo brand vice president Deng Li told Campaign China on the sidelines of its own activation launch event last month.
Asian sponsors, including those prominent seven Chinese brands and South Korea's Kia Motors, accounted for 39% of all deals, according to a calculation by Nielsen's World Football Report 2018.
FIFA statistics confirm that out of 2.4 million tickets, 40,251 have gone to Chinese fans, ranking the country eighth (excluding Russia) in sales and making it the largest Asian buyer. Chinese netizens joke online about this being the "salvation of the nation through a detour" (曲线救国), making up for China's own faltering football team that qualified for the World Cup finals for the first, and only, time in 2002.
Chinese pride in their country's behind-the-scenes involvement in this World Cup is also revealing. The official licensor of the Zabivaka mascot is an Alibaba wholesaler from Hangzhou called Kayford. Few people care about the company being exclusively responsible for the production and sales worldwide of World Cup-related plush toys, mugs, keychains, shirts and authorised memorabilia — except the locals.
What the official Chinese sponsors are doing:
A central element of Dalian Wanda's sponsorship activation will be its 'FIFA Flag Bearers' programme, where six children from one of the poorest Chinese regions, Danzhai County in Guizhou Province, get the chance to parade the official flag at the start of the opening FIFA match.
"For these children, it is a dream to go abroad for the first time and be in the centre of the football arena which will be watched by millions of fans all over the world," stated Wanda. The company turned our interview request down as it wanted to "remain low-profile".
This move is part of Wanda's ongoing poverty-alleviation brand messaging, now supplemented by “money can’t buy” opportunities such as post-match team bench visits. Additionally, prizes in a branded predictor game called the FIFA World Cup™ Bracket Challenge by Wanda include a VIP experience for two people at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid, Spain.
A FIFA partner – the highest level of sponsorship – for the Russia World Cup, with rights up to 2030, Wanda itself will benefit from the promotion of FIFA competitions across its various real estate, cultural and sporting properties. It will also see the implementation of a FIFA youth development program in China.
Wanda is the second-ever Chinese sponsor in the history of the tournament, after Yingli Solar in 2014. The brand's owner, Wang Jianlin, has openly stated that the FIFA scandal was China's chance to take advantage of sponsorship opportunities. “Two or three years ago, Chinese and Asian companies probably wouldn’t even have had a chance to sponsor FIFA even if we wanted to. But because some western companies dropped out, we got the opportunity,” he told Reuters two years ago.
Mengniu's 27 dairy brands, which fall under four categories of drinkable yoghurt, ice cream, fresh milk and powdered milk, will all share World Cup marketing rights, comprising a seven-minute ad (watch the 60-second version here). An earlier press release from the brand boldly predicted that "through the power of the global media, there will be more than 50 billion individual impressions. On average, each person will see at least 20 Mengniu advertisements."
Mengniu mainly advertises in its native language, and has not bothered transliterating its brand name from hanzi characters (蒙牛) into Latin letters in English. This suggests it is either hoping to score with domestic consumers watching the Cup at home, or pursuing legitimacy by proving the brand can appear alongside the likes of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. (The 2008 tainted milk scandal, with which the Mengniu name is closely associated, was only ten years ago.)
"The Chinese characters are a bit intimidating because I don't understand them; seems like a bit of a power play" was the view of one soccer fan Campaign China spoke with while viewing the Germany-Mexico match in Hong Kong over the weekend. "China's presence is becoming apparent and more 'in your face'. Before now, it was more of an undertone".
Mengniu's actual activation at the Luzhniki Stadium, a colourful booth filled with a giant inflatable cow, was greeted with uncertain amusement.
One of the World Cup sponsors here at the Luzhniki Stadium appears to be some sort of Chinese dairy. They “collect nature’s essence to help you become stronger”. Mmm...delicious. pic.twitter.com/H9fhNIHi4f— Dan H (@dan_howells) June 14, 2018
A play with more obvious intentions was the hiring of Lionel Messi to front Mengniu's World Cup advertising campaign, again touting the same slogan. Little wonder that 32% of Chinese football consumers favour FC Barcelona’s Messi, way above Cristiano Ronaldo (20%) and David Beckham (18%), according to a March report by Center for Sports and Management at WHU–Otto Beisheim School of Management. Got milk? Messi's milk.
The Qingdao consumer electronics company's activation revolves around a branded (and product-equipped) Hisense tour bus making its way through Europe in the group stages to Russia in the knockout stages, while producing social media posts led by English comedian Lloyd Griffith. Hisense is also roping in Luís Figo, Robert Pires, Michael Owen, Benedikt Höwedes, Marcel Desailly and lesser-known influencers to build a constant stream of video content, meant to be "humorous" and "incredible", to fit its image of being the official television provider.
The backdrop at the #2018FIFAWorldCup press conference goes digital for the very first time, ending 88-year's history of using sponsors boards. Looking familiar? #Hisense #TV pic.twitter.com/2IYXJVP04H— Hisense (@HisenseGlobal) June 11, 2018
The 65-inch Hisense 4K HDR ULED TV is the 'hero product' the brand is making a big fuss over; accompanied by the word 'смотри' (Russian meaning for 'watch'), the Hisense World Cup slogan has been on display since Thursday's curtain-raiser between host country Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Key exposure for Vivo is a series of music and photography marketing activations, as well as brand experience pavilions at the Luzhniki and St Petersburg stadiums showcasing its NEX and V9 Blue smartphones.
Hyping up its music-themed activation are the Vivo Super DJ Shows, which will be performed live during the half-time breaks and 90 minutes before kick-off for 62 out of 64 matches.
As part of the Vivo Super Fan programme, Russian and Chinese photographers Sidelnikov Timur and Xiao Quan (肖全, pictured below), were allowed to take all the selfies and close-up shots of player warmups they wanted with exclusive pitch-side access — in exchange, of course, for flashing the Vivo V9 smartphone about.
Timeline of when official Chinese sponsors signed up
Ambush marketing from non-official Chinese sponsors
The World Cup is a huge competition for audience engagement, so naturally there have been ambush marketers galore from opportunistic Chinese companies.
There are plenty of brands not officially affiliated with FIFA that are sponsoring country teams competing in the Cup. Examples include used goods trading platform Zhuanzhuan and the Brazilian team; beverage brands Hangzhou Wahaha Group and Eastroc, plus P2P lending firm Leadercf, all supporting the Portuguese team; interior design brand Der, home appliances manufacturer Vanward, consumer lending firm Hexindai and furniture brand Paterson all aligning with the Argentine team; Sichuan Changhong Electric Co and the Belgian team.
At times, simply an affinity with colours was behind the decision. Changhong's general manager Li Wei told local media that the Belgian team, nicknamed the 'Red Devils', matches the word ‘hong’ (meaning red in Chinese) in the company name.
The 'World Cup effect' on adspend
This year’s FIFA World Cup will add US$2.4 billion to the global advertising market, according to numbers compiled by Zenith. This will be the net amount added to the market, taking into account both the extra money spent by advertisers seeking to reach World Cup audiences and any reductions in spending by advertisers that wish to avoid this competitive period, the agency clarified.
The biggest boost in dollar terms will be in China, where Jonathan Barnard, head of forecasting and director of global intelligence at Zenith, expects the World Cup to generate US$835 million in extra adspend, or 1% of entire adspend. "For brands in China, this will be the most important World Cup yet, despite the absence of the Chinese national team," stated the report.
Many factors swing in China's favour. Football fans, often characterised as hostile to the commercialisation of their sport, are actually more understanding and accepting of sponsorship than the general population, as figures in the Nielsen World Football Report show. In Spain, complainants around football being over-commercialised are the highest in the world at 55%. In contrast, in China this figure stood at just 15%.
When it comes to being swayed by sponsor tactics, 51% of those interested in football would favour a sponsor’s product over a non-sponsor’s if price and quality were the same, compared to 41% among the broader group. Again, Nielsen's respondents in China are much more receptive than those in Western European markets.
Still, Tom Nixon, client services director at Qumin, feels the choices made by Chinese corporations on how and where to invest their marketing budgets are missing the mark. Within China at least, sponsors like Hisense and Vivo are very clearly displaying their sponsorship of the FIFA World Cup merely through vast media buys and outdoor ads, he observes.
Football advertising has produced some of the greatest creativity in history, yet the 'global' spot from Vivo (see below) has disappointed Nixon. "The format feels generic and the connection to the cultural insights of the Asian football audience feels dated," he says, sharing his thoughts in detail below:
"Vivo's brand belief is ‘deep inside everyone is a piece of extraordinary waiting to be seen’. Maybe some people have already found a way to show their extraordinary side? If I were to work on that insight in relation to the World Cup, the campaign would not be called 'Unlock Extraordinary' as I am a viewer, not a participating footballer. It would be ‘Capture Extraordinary’, targeted at observers of the game.
I also prefer the idea of subtly hinting at the origin of the 'extraordinariness' (the Vivo phone) by saying: 'The extraordinary comes from surprising places'. It could be China, or an underdog team, or a debut player. Those are more interesting. If Italy or Germany were to win, that would almost be a non-event. It’s somehow less extraordinary when the predictable happens. It would have been a nicer angle if Vivo tried to own the unexpected moments. Those are the moments you most want to capture and share with your new Vivo phone. The current spot feels too much like an ad for the World Cup and the footballers; I don’t see a clear message for the end user."
The off-pitch ambitions of 'China Inc'
Mengniu's Messi spot has fielded the same criticism of 'forcing' the player into the ad even if it doesn't work with the overall storytelling of the brand. Sports marketing in China is "creatively weak at present", Nixon feels, and there are reasons. This is the first FIFA World Cup since football was made part of the Chinese curriculum in March 2015. FIFA's own WeChat account (see below) for digital engagement and education on football was set up just weeks before kick-off, on 25 April.
Unprecedented efforts by the Chinese government to transform the country into a football superpower have resulted in interest and investment in the sport growing exponentially in recent years, says Thomas Howard, associate director of Burson Cohn & Wolfe China. Nielsen data tracked increasing interest among China's spectators, from 27% in 2013 to 32% in 2017. And taking a conservative count of urban folks only, China has 187 million willing spectators, more than the 131 million in Germany, UK, France, Italy and Spain combined. The sport is firmly on the radar of President Xi Jinping, who told FIFA about his desire to host a World Cup in the future.
As Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford University, writes: "It is perhaps telling that Wanda’s sponsorship deal with the World Cup ends in 2030, with some people already speculating that China’s payback will be to host the tournament that year".
Given the huge untapped potential for football in China, and an enviable track record of successfully hosting major international sporting events, a China World Cup bid, potentially for the 2030 tournament, would be very hard to beat, agrees Howard.
When that time comes in twelve years, perhaps Wanda, Hisense, Vivo, Mengniu, Yadea, Luci and Diking will have developed into truly globally-active Chinese brands; but Howard warns that there is a difference between being "globally active" and "globally respected and admired". Building global awareness is only one part of the equation and huge expenditure on advertising and sponsorship is not the only answer, he advises.
The short-term sales mindset and limited transparency of many Chinese brands continue to fuel distrust and scepticism outside of China. Trust takes time to build, but it is an essential step on the path to becoming a respected company, he says. "Chinese brands must be patient and combine sustained business performance with a genuine willingness to be more transparent and adaptable. One way to accelerate this is to give more autonomy to local market teams, and to ensure more non-Chinese representation on their board of directors who shape the overall tone of the company."