Opinion

Marketers are willing to play Russian Roulette at the FIFA World Cup this summer – for good reason

From a succession of corruption scandals to a host nation embroiled in human rights controversies, this year's FIFA World Cup could potentially be an own goal for brands – but that doesn't mean they shouldn't participate, writes Adam Hodge

In less than 100 days, the world’s biggest sporting event kicks off in Russia.

Reaching over 3.2 billion television viewers, the quadrennial FIFA World Cup has consistently held off the Olympic Games and Tour De France as the most watched live sporting event on the planet.

So it’s no surprise that since its very inception in 1930 (hosted and won by Uruguay for trivia buffs), it’s been a property of keen interest to brands around the globe. And no more so than in Asia where football is loved so much.

Our research across the region shows the FIFA World Cup as the clear winner for football fan attention in all markets surveyed.

But, having said that, any investment where you are borrowing the equity of a third party has some degree of reputational risk. Even a major international event – which should be broad enough to ride through individual player, rights holder or indeed host nation controversy – the FIFA World Cup has felt the pain of late, with rare vacancies in its sponsorship roster.

That in part is due to the ongoing repercussions of multiple corruption scandals, which culminated in the painful ousting of Sepp Blatter. Plus Russia as host nation, a country mired in internal human rights issues and now a diplomatic crisis over the death of an ex-spy in the United Kingdom, is hardly the most endearing proposition for marketers.

Just like the International Olympic Committee’ TOP Program, FIFA restricts the number of key partners at three levels. The key difference being that the IOC has never not filled these spaces. But in the lead up to the World Cup in Russia, FIFA has filled seven of eight available top tier FIFA partnerships, only five of eight second tier World Cup sponsors and just four regionals supporters (two of these are ‘seat-filler’ FIFA owned platforms ‘Football for Hope’ and ‘FIFA.com’).

This said, there are signs that FIFA has started down the slow road to recovery – reviving a brand which had its reputation damaged by the previous regime and associated scandal. It would be irresponsible to say that this doesn’t come with a note of caution, but no more so than the Olympics given the continued issues with doping. 

What is apparent is that despite the Chinese national team missing out on securing a place at the tournament, the country’s brands are making their presence felt for the first time en masse.

Chinese Multinational Wanda Group has taken a top tier FIFA partnership (joining the likes of Hyundai/Kia, Coca Cola and VISA), while Chinese Dairy brand Mengniu, smartphone manufacturer VIVO and electronics giant Hisense all enter at tier two with fellow World Cup sponsors McDonalds and Budweiser. All three have indicated there partnerships are aimed at bolstering their brands image abroad. An objective the FIFA World Cup can deliver on in spades.

But the big ticket FIFA deals aren’t the only way for brands to get mileage from the World Cup. Some brands choose to associate themselves in a more indirect way. This can be via partnerships with players directly or with the national teams. Nike sponsors the Brazilian National Team (among others) and uses this partnership to tactically associate with football in the lead up to and during the World Cup – while always falling cautiously short of crossing the line into FIFA-protected territory or language.

Player endorsements are a massive part of the world game and never more so than in a World Cup year. Endemic brands– those who sell products used within the sport itself – tend to be the most active with athletes, but we are seeing brands with less obvious links taking advantage of player association to skirt the regulations. A brilliant example is this epic spot from now Apple-owned Beats by Dr Dre.

In a world of heighten focus on brand safety, there are marketers all over the world working busily to both maximise their impact and leverage of partnerships whilst simultaneously protecting their brands from any possible negative impacts of the Russian games. 

Marketers can at least console themselves with the fact that 2018 is not the first tournament to be over-shadowed by controversial events. Issues such as hooliganism, the choice to host the 2022 games in Qatar – a country with an even more worrying record than Russia – and prima donna players, plus racism and homophobia have dogged the FIFA brand for decades.

With that in mind, while the World Cup provides massive reach and huge brand-building potential, it is a platform that marketers must always approach with due care. I’ve never understood if ‘winning’ is the goal in Russian Roulette, but the brands who will be victorious in Moscow in June will be those who strike the perfect balance between protection and leverage.

Adam Hodge is the head of strategy for sports marketing agency Octagon Asia-Pacific

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