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Does the World Cup have a brand problem?

As the World Cup approaches and controversies around the host nation continue, Pitch Marketing Group’s Chris Allen considers how brands might approach this year’s game.

Chris Allen, Pitch Marketing Group

Managing Director

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So, “Does the FIFA World Cup have a brand problem?”. Whilst in this piece I won’t dodge the question entirely, it is a question which will truly be answered in the long term. I think the more pertinent question and one that we will see the answer to in the coming weeks is “do brands have a FIFA World Cup problem”? 

Let’s face it, in men’s sport, nothing tops the FIFA World Cup. A global celebration of the most popular sport in the world. A tournament that grows the reach of football by bringing countries with World Cup pedigree like Germany, Brazil and *cough* England together with minnows like Iran, Wales, Tunisia and this year Qatar. One that sees people who have never shown an interest in football become passionate fans every 4 years.

The shifting role of football in society

However football, and more broadly sport, is no longer judged in a performance silo. It is now judged on how it represents society – for the good, the bad and the ugly. Increasingly fans want to be passionate about the game on the field but also passionate about what it stands for off it. How it sets values for their children. How it addresses societal issues. How it positively influences global politics. Rightly, football’s prominence on the world stage means it’s a fair playing field for team, player, fan and as we’re about to explore, brand activism.

Ever since the tournament was awarded to one of the hottest countries on the planet with just 2.8m inhabitants, a cloud was cast over the 2022 World Cup. To begin with, the very decision to take football’s flagship tournament to the Gulf state was met with accusations of corruption, with a number of FIFA executives involved in deals to bring the tournament to Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022 now disgraced. Since then, that cloud has got darker and darker. The disruption of moving the event to winter for the first time in its history, well-publicised welfare issues and even deaths of those building the stadia and infrastructure for the tournament, the country's poor human rights record and abysmal treatment of minority groups all played their part. It’s fair to say that with just six weeks to go that cloud has now become a reputational storm with the potential to p!ss on FIFA’s football parade.

Football, and more broadly sport, is no longer judged in a performance silo. It is now judged on how it represents society – for the good, the bad and the ugly.

Chris Allen, Managing Director, Pitch Marketing Group

It’s worth noting that currently, these reputational issues have not affected the FIFA World Cup financially – it remains a commercial behemoth. The tournament is the governing body’s flagship income driving event, with revenue budgeted for 2022 of $4.6bn. Sponsorship represents a significant portion of that at $1.3 billion (29%), behind broadcasting rights which equates to $2.6 billion (56 %). Hospitality rights and ticket sales, licensing rights and other income make up the remaining 13% with a relatively paltry $673 million.

FIFA confirmed in April this year that they’re not short of cash with $440 million in prize money allocated to the 2022 World Cup – an increase of $40m on the prize pot in Russia in 2018 and $80m on the 2014 tournament in Brazil. So, the broadcasters keep buying the product, the sponsors keep paying for association and the circus will roll into Doha.

The numbers don’t lie, right?

Wrong. They only tell half the story. More recently we’ve started to see a change in the make-up of FIFA’s partners and sponsors. Historically FIFA’s sponsorship revenue comes from some of the biggest blue chip brands in the world. Between the 2006, 2010 and 2014 World Cups FIFA counted Visa, Adidas, BP, Coca-Cola, Budweiser (AB-inBev), Mastercard, McDonald’s, Sony, Castrol, Hyundai-Kia, Yahoo, Gillette, Emirates, Philips and more amongst its global partners and sponsors.

At Russia 2018 and now Qatar this year a number of these blue-chip brands have pulled out as a result of some of the aforementioned controversies and FIFA have moved to more Asian and/or local companies with far less global relevance. For the 2022 competition Adidas, Visa, Coca-Cola and Hyundai-Kia remain as partners but alongside them are QatarEnergy, Qatar Airways and Wanda (the former two being Qatari state owned operations). McDonald’s and Budweiser are still involved but as less influential (and lower paying) partners alongside less recognised challenger brands such as Hisense, BYJU’S, Vivo and Crypto.com.

So whilst the $$$ remain, the prestige and appeal to marketeers in particular appears to be waning – the first signs of a major problem for the World Cup brand. Whether FIFA’s brand problem continues will be influenced by the way the world reacts to this unique tournament, and how FIFA addresses any protest from teams, players, fans or brands in Qatar. If handled badly, their roster of partners for the 2026 World Cup could continue to be diluted further.

Time for the unofficial partners to shine

FIFA have a stranglehold on how their teams, the players and official partners act and use their marketing rights and affiliation. You just have to look at some of the activations and campaigns launched by its partners to date. Unsurprisingly, none of them address any of the controversies but rather focus on the skills on field or ability of the tournament to inspire and unite. Some of these campaigns will no doubt resonate with passionate fans of the game.

However I believe the main concern for FIFA is how former sponsors, non-sponsors and brands with credibility in the game elsewhere, now have the opportunity to take a stand. An opportunity which gives brands the power to resonate beyond football. For example, if I were the CMO at Mastercard, or the official partner of a national team, I’d be thinking that without the marketing and activation constraints of being an “Official World Cup partner”, I could have my football shaped cake and eat it.

I firmly believe that this could be the first World Cup where the real brand winners are those without the title“Official FIFA World Cup 2022 sponsor”. Those brands with credibility in football through national team deals or other football partnerships, but without the marketing handcuffs of FIFA’s strict partner guidelines. They can use their credible brand platform, football’s global reach and consumers passion for cultural change to “win” the hearts of both football fans and non-fans this World Cup. If done right this is how I believe you can generate real brand passion and become relevant in not just football fans' lives but in the lives of others who can’t help but notice a World Cup that will dominate front and back pages.

Just the other week sportswear brand Hummel – who’s brand passion is to ‘change the world through sport’ – made the first, and I’m sure not the last, powerful statement against the World Cup being held in Qatar with their monochrome Danish World Cup kit. As kit manufacturer for Denmark, a team whose governing body and players have spoken out against the tournament, this was a strong and authentic statement that both resonated with its core audience but also went beyond the feeds and websites usually carrying football news. It had real cultural spark. The controversial nature of the move naturally created backlash from the Supreme Committee of Qatar (adding fuel to the fire) but it also meant journalists dug into the story, further questioning whether Hummel would be making a profit from the shirt. The answer is of course they are, they are a business and I think most consumers understand that, but perhaps their donation of 1% of all their World Cup shirt sales to Amnesty International (likely to amount to $120,000) could have been more. However the way their CEO actively sat down with the Athletic to discuss what they are doing in this space added further credibility to the story and to their aim to ‘Change the World through sport’.

At Pitch we have a couple of clients who are not official World Cup partners but who are going to be using this World Cup to take a stance on societal passion points - some call this purpose, but for the modern consumer they are as passionate about society as they are their football team.

One such brand is our longstanding client BT & EE – lead partner of the Home Nations Football Associations – who have built great credibility in this space. Firstly through their award winning BT Hope United campaign which addressed online hate at the men’s Euros in 2021. And more recently at this year’s Women’s Euros, EE’s iteration of that was the ‘Not her problem’ campaign addressing the sexist hate experienced by female footballers. For EE and others once removed from the 2022 World Cup, I think it’s going to be a case of watch this space…

The other side of the coin

A final and important point I want to make on this subject is that I am writing this as an atheist Englishman, living in London and working in the “marketing bubble”. As the name suggests, the World Cup is a global tournament beamed into the terraced houses of Burnley, Riads of Marrakesh, favelas of Rio, ranches of the American mid-west and everything in between. It’s watched and played by nations from “east” to “west” and unites a magnificently diverse spectrum of cultures and beliefs.

So whilst I and others (brands, fans, players) in Northern Europe and the “western world” may consider FIFA to have a brand problem, it’s not necessarily a universal truth. The world is a complex place and failure to acknowledge that would be naïve. Others may see this as an opportunity for the world to experience a country with limited exposure or for new brand partners to gain exposure they wouldn’t otherwise have had.

FIFA’s argument, rightly, has always been that it’s their responsibility as football’s governing body to help the sport reach beyond its historical borders, to introduce and grow the beautiful game in other countries and show how the values of football can change the world for the better. Qatar 2022 – the first world cup in the Middle East - and its host city Doha, which barely existed 50 years ago, could be a great proof point for this. The country has a growing football community and it has started to make positive changes, albeit small ones, in its approach to human rights.

Perhaps if the end result of Qatar 2022 is more than ‘sports washing’ and starts to result in meaningful change - both in the growth of the game in the Middle East and in changes to human rights policies in the region – it could eventually be deemed a World Cup legacy success story. Only time will tell.

So, to bring us back to the question ‘does the World Cup have a brand problem’? From my perspective yes, but more so I think this will manifest in the way we see some brands showing how they have a World Cup problem. Whilst that is a very real and potentially painful problem for FIFA over the coming months, perhaps in the long term it could be a catalyst for change both at FIFA and in the host country.

Guest Author

Chris Allen, Pitch Marketing Group

Managing Director

About

Chris Allen is Managing Director of Pitch Marketing Group, an independent creative agency building brands that people can be passionate about. Over the past decade he has led award-winning campaigns for rights holders, brands and media companies including ASICS, Beats by Dre, Betfair, BT Sport, Channel 4, cinch, NBA, Premier League, Red Bull and Uber Eats.

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