It is just before midnight on a warm summer night when a large group of drunken and raucous Mexican fans approach some local policemen on a street in Moscow. The expressions on the Russian law enforcement officers’ faces are stern and alert, and their stance shows they’re ready to react quickly. Shouting and physical contact follow, however, not the type academy training had prepared them for. “Spasiba Rossiya!” chants erupt (translated: “Thank you, Russia”), followed by the group hugging the perplexed policemen.
The Mexican fans had just left Luzhniki Stadium after the Final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup. The match didn’t feature their national team “El Tri,” which had been knocked out of the tournament 10 days before. However surreal the scene would be in any other context, it represented a randomly ordinary occasion in Moscow during the course of the tournament.
Despite severe political issues, allegations of state-sponsored doping and concerns over hooliganism, racism and homophobia, this World Cup will be remembered by most foreign visitors as meticulously organized, rich in cultural entertainment and most welcoming and enjoyable for fans from around the globe. As has been seen many times before, come tournament time politics, controversies and tarnished governing body reputations are washed aside, and fans enjoy the event for what it does better than any other (no offense, IOC) – grabbing an otherwise overstimulated and under-focused global audience’s full attention and fascination for an entire month of celebration.
The 2018 World Cup in numbers
While off-field business scores are still being counted and analyzed, the tournament will have once again broken a laundry list of records. Initial reports by research firm GlobalWebIndex suggest that 3.4B people (half the world’s population, mind you) tuned into the World Cup at some point this summer. The turnover of global betting was estimated at a whopping $160B (that’s an average of $2.5B per match). FIFA’s digital platforms generated more than 7.5B engagements and 1.25B video views. And then of course, there’s the infamous all-time best 14 minutes that Neymar spent on the ground.
How to capitalize on the party in an increasingly cluttered media and marketing landscape
The jury is still out on which among FIFA’s commercial affiliates generated the greatest share of voice and mind in 2018. What was evident was the experience gap between veteran brands and newcomers to the major global sponsorship scene (of which there were many) and that only few dared to go bold and commit to a 360 cross-media platform strategy built around an ownable, authentic and fan-relevant role within the World Cup ecosystem. With awareness plays plentiful, the temptation to pass on the message of unity among people and nations became a common theme.
Becoming an official sponsor of the World Cup party comes at a hefty price, and ethical concerns among Fortune 500 brands remain. Whether or not it is the right strategic fit for the right price needs to be carefully evaluated (I may know someone that can help with that). And what the world will look like in 2022, who knows? But based on what we know today and dare to anticipate for tomorrow, here are some party pointers to consider if and once invested in the property.
1. Don’t just look down from the mezzanine, join the party
Product exclusivity within the immediate event and IP confines remains the holy grail of comfort for many sponsors. But the opportunities for unaffiliated brands to generate engagement with the World Cup audience are becoming so manifold and common practice across traditional and emerging multimedia channels that the marketing noise will continue to reach new decibel heights. As much as rights-holders try to protect exclusivity, the term “ambush” appears doomed to disappear from our everyday marketing jargon. To get ahead of the curve, bringing something special to the party by creating unique and meaningful value for fans will become increasingly important for sponsors.
2. Help guests to have a great time – the way only you can or with a story only you can tell
Creating memorable marketing campaigns is much easier said than done. There’s a reason P&G’s “Thank You Mom” TV ad series, originally created for the 2012 London Olympics, lives on and still finds its way onto today’s sponsorship best practice slides. Coca-Cola’s FIFA World Cup Trophy Tour has been a significant quadrennial investment, but it has given the soft drink company ownership of an invaluable signature asset that is literally carried into every corner of the world over a nearly year-long activation period. And Anheuser-Busch continues to push the envelope with hotel, club and tourist boat takeovers to provide its target audience with a larger and “redder” World Cup destination experience – and an excuse to consume more of its beer. But even if you’re adidas and benefitting from goal-scoring billboards and ambassadors, in the next World Cup cycle it will be even harder to stand out.
In the era of immersive technology and media, Virtual Reality (VR) is a fascinating canvas and can serve as a neat fan-zone activation. But how does the experience tie back to a non-endemic brand, drive product awareness or affinity, and help create an authentic sponsorship identity? Technology integration and the merging of the physical and digital worlds have become a must-have within sponsorship marketing, but they need to be relevant to the brand and enhance the consumer experience within their channels of choice. Augmented Reality (AR), with its more imminent potential for mobile use, appears more apt and ready to fit the bill and is on track to enable seamless paths to purchase in the near future. It allows brands to transport their offerings directly into the consumer’s world.
3. Pick out the people in the crowd you can relate to
How can brands become more targeted, timely and effective in telling their story? Being opportunistic and daringly nimble to react quickly to real-time events can be as or even more impactful than cleverly crafted campaigns.
Chinese field board messages speak to the world’s largest market, but it’s all Greek to the vast majority of World Cup viewers. Most of today’s sponsorship advertising solutions (in-stadium and in-broadcast) are still pre-programmed and don’t allow for brands to capitalize on the power of emotions during key moments of the game. The advancement of virtual advertising systems in broadcast will not only allow smarter geo-targeting in the future, but eventually provide the golden opportunity for customized, in-the-moment and interactive fan engagement.
4. Talk with them, not at them
As Juan Pablo Varsky, an Argentinian sports journalist put it, “Soccer is the most important of the least important things in life.” Today’s World Cup fans understand that sponsors and advertisers are necessary to put on their beloved show. More than half of the fans say they are brand-conscious and 63% state that once they find a brand they tend to stick with it. However, only if fans see true value and purpose in how the brand creates, enhances or amplifies their World Cup experience (whether as entertainment or spectator service) or expression of fandom will they trial and eventually consider adding it to their trusted circle of affinity brands.
5. And last but not least…
In order to win party guests over, get their contacts before you leave. Keep in touch to get to know them better. And show that you care about them.
Brands have to make sponsorship rights work hard for them. Designations and contractual assets open front doors to the World Cup festivities, but competitors have found plenty of ways to crash the party via backdoors and bathroom windows.
You already know the next parties will only get bigger. And if you’re lucky, you will get a group hug in the end.