The real World Cup winners were those brands that adopted ‘design thinking’

Due to the FIFA scandals of recent years, sponsorship revenue actually fell at this World Cup but those brands which did go to Russia and triumph were those that adopted design thinking – writes Sadhan Mishra of OMD

Sports marketing continues to offer a large audience and is one of the last unchallenged bastions of appointment viewing and linear television. The scale of audience, the passion associated with sports and the general feel-good factor makes this channel attractive to advertisers all around the world.

The FIFA World Cup is the largest common denominator in world sports with its unmatched scale and universal appeal that brings even casual football enthusiasts into the fold. A 2018 survey by GlobalWebIndex found that 47% of the world’s population planned to watch the World Cup this summer, which amounted to around 3.8 billion people.

With $100M plus FIFA partnerships, multi-million-dollar player rights and the generally high cost of media during the period, it is also one of, if not, the most expensive sporting events. As with everything in communications, sports marketing needs to be carefully designed for an end-to-end consumer experience to create conditions for success. The principles of design thinking provide a powerful lens to examine the key success factors behind the winning brands during this year’s tournament.

Elements central to how designers work can fuel the way communications is approached. The vital first step is to crystallise the ambition. Often glossed over, this is an incredibly important step, as creating a productive association within an expensive space like the World Cup can be a confusing and daunting process.

Empathy with the audience is central to making the association authentic and meaningful. And paying attention to the details of activation can truly bring the campaigns to life at the right time and the right place. Getting these elements right can be truly rewarding, as evidenced by several examples this year.

The right ambition

This seems to be a no brainer but often marketers get it wrong and fail to properly leverage their costly FIFA association. Football intuitively is a natural fit for the Nikes of the world, but what could be the ambition behind World Cup association for a quick-service restaurant chain beyond leveraging their physical presence to screen games?

This year, McDonald’s got it right by doing the due diligence on the right opportunity to maximise its sponsorship pay-off. Having seen the success of the firm’s delivery service, once available only in Asia but now across the globe, as well as the allure of quick-service food for an audience that wants minimum disruption when it comes to football, they zeroed down on McDelivery as their single biggest focus during the tournament. From perimeter boards to TV ads and social presence, McDelivery was a consistent theme in match viewing across the globe.

They even tapped into their partnership with Uber Eats, borrowing ‘feel good’ through a quirky association with Italy’s Pirlo.

In contrast, Mastercard got a red card for one of the biggest faux pas of the month by promoting a contribution to hungry children for every goal scored, in the process trivialising the very serious and emotive issue of food shortage – and the otherwise laudable association with the United Nations Food Programme. The campaign had to be canned after a huge backlash.

Part of framing the ambition is also to recognise new audiences. Huge new frontiers of football audiences have opened up in markets like China. China’s largest commercial property company, the Wanda Group, is one of FIFA’s seven official partners capitalising on the surge in football’s popularity in the world’s most populous country.

Asian sponsors now account for over a third of all 2018 World Cup sponsorship spend. Even the Filipinos, avid hoop addicts, are getting deeply into the beautiful game – especially after the Philippines qualified for the Asian Cup for the first time, and former England international Terry Butcher joined them as the new coach. They might well constitute a vital new audience for the 2022 World Cup.

Empathy and craft

True empathy with the fans and the football audience is at the heart of well-designed campaigns – feeling what they feel, seeing what they see, understanding their pains and gains, needs and wants. Some brands might be experts with years of practice, while others scramble to get the basics right before the big show. But it is the brands who are able to master data and human empathy that truly captivate audiences.

McDonald’s demonstrated it beautifully in China, where it took into account the nuances of the market – the surge of viewership of long-form video content and people increasingly working late and taking taxis home.

Visa also used a really simple but effective insight to empathise with audiences during this World Cup. Despite being the exclusive payment service at all stadiums, they focused on the universal fear of missing out experienced by 90% of soccer fans, who all wanted to be part of the game even if remotely. 

Visa translated this universal truth into a perfectly crafted global marketing campaign, aimed at making all football fans feel included – even if they were not able to fly to Russia. International football star Zlatan Ibrahimović was the perfect vehicle to convey this message as, while he didn’t play for his (Sweden) team this year, he still wanted to do absolutely anything he could to get to Russia in Visa’s first World Cup spot.

Empathising with the audience also helps brands create campaigns that leverage the hype of football, even without any official FIFA association. Ikea recognised that the World Cup can result in a living room with divided fans and promoted couches to empathise upon these sentiments – an entertaining take on the reality of football viewing.

This trend was truly evident this year with FIFA embroiled in corruption, which made brands circumspect – resulting in a drop in official sponsorship revenue. According to Nielsen Sports’ research, FIFA sponsorship revenue fell from $1,629m at the 2014 Brazil World Cup to a forecast $1,450m this year.

“The sport is more popular than ever,” said Tariq Paneja of The New York Times, but “what is different this time is FIFA’s reputation”. As a result, there were a plethora of brands that went the route Ikea did – including Carlsberg, Paddy Power, Domino’s and Umbro.


In the words of Charles Eames, the outstanding American designer and architect: “The details are not the details. They make the design. Getting the ambition right and building empathy with consumers is important but activating the right message, delivered at the right time is equally important.”

McDonald’s in Hong Kong creatively used real-time moment triggers to deliver timely messages, while staying true to the global ambition around McDelivery. The timings of the ads were based around key moments, such as kick-off, a goal, the half-time or final whistle when audiences were most excited or in the mind-space to order food.

They leveraged data management platforms to identify football fans likely to be watching the game at home, as well as their past purchase behaviours, and combined the data layers with real-time sports moment triggers. The resulting ads even included the match scores in real-time.

Brands and marketers care deeply about designing the right product and experience for their consumers. The partners they work with have a duty of care to do the same on their behalf. It is not enough to just be visible, but rather be meaningful, in order to make the most out of big ticket sponsorships.

Those who got the most out of this World Cup triumphed because they applied the principle of design thinking – having the right ambition, empathising with the consumers and taking a creative approach to their activations.

In doing so, not only did they score big during key moments of the matches, they also created a little more brand equity to carry forward after the tournament came to an end, making them the ultimate champions of this sporting spectacle.

Design thinking has paid dividends, says Mishra

Sadhan Mishra is OMD Asia-Pacific regional business director


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