First Learnings From The World Cup

On July 11, Spain won the World Cup by scoring the decisive goal during the last few minutes of what became the most-watched soccer game ever in the U.S. Now, World Cup marketers are getting to work to determine to what extent their own FIFA activities paid off.

Although results are still being analyzed, it is already clear that different brands use very different marketing strategies with regard to their involvement in soccer:

  • Some brands are official FIFA tournament partners, such as Adidas, Coca-Cola, Visa, Emirates and Sony
  • Some brands provide apparel, such as Nike and Adidas
  • Some brands also sponsor professional teams, such as Emirates Airlines
  • Some brands use ambush marketing -- referring to tournaments and other soccer events in their marketing campaigns rather than officially sponsoring them -- to create associations with the sport. Nike has a long history of doing just that.

So the question is: What is the best strategy? Should a brand sponsor teams or events? Or should it use other tactics, such as ambush marketing?

The team vs. events dilemma is interesting. With events, you get a broad association with the sport; and since you are not taking sides, you never lose. When you sponsor a team, you will connect more strongly with fans, who tend to care more about teams and players than the sport in general. However, you are taking sides and risk seeing your team lose.

When you sponsor individual players -- or deal with athletes or celebrities in general for that matter -- you add the risk of personal behavior, as Accenture realized with Tiger Woods late last year; however, you probably get an even more personal connection with fans. As a result, when brands are looking to develop deeper connections with fans by sponsoring teams or individual players, they have to address the increased risks.

Diversifying by sponsoring multiple teams or by sponsoring both teams and events then becomes attractive. Emirates uses both strategies: It sponsors multiple teams: Arsenal (U.K.), AC Milan (Italy), and Paris St. Germain (France), among others, and it also sponsors soccer tournaments such as the FIFA World Cup. Sponsoring multiple teams also allows Emirates to be relevant to fans across different countries, which, of course, happen to be countries the airline serves.

While sponsors try to gain an edge over the competition by securing a category-exclusive "official partner" or "official sponsor" status, their competitors can respond by doing ambush marketing. The most notable example in soccer is Adidas and Nike, both makers of soccer apparel.

Adidas has consistently been an official sponsor of major tournaments such as the FIFA World Cup. Nike, on the other hand, never sponsors events. It does ambush marketing instead. It also has deals with individual athletes, including soccer players. But it diversifies by having many individual athletes as endorsers, thereby limiting the risk associated with any one of them.

A study by the Nielsen Company in June suggested that Nike generated twice as many references to the World Cup than official partner Adidas in online, English-speaking messages. Much of that online activity was created by Nike's "Write the Future" campaign, which included a full-length video on YouTube featuring star soccer players Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo, among other athletes.

Other World Cup ambushers included beer brand Carlsberg (Budweiser was the official FIFA partner), Pepsi (Coca-Cola was the official partner) and Panasonic (vs. official partner Sony). However, unlike Nike, these other ambushers' buzz levels were significantly lower.

So what can we learn from the brands associating themselves with the FIFA World Cup?

  • Event sponsorship is safer but less fan-engaging than team or athlete endorsements
  • Risks associated with team and athlete endorsements can be mitigated through diversification
  • Ambush marketing can provide substantial connections to an event, but official sponsorship status creates a buzz that is less dependent on campaign design and execution

Finally, every brand is unique, and sponsorship objectives differ from one to another. So what works for your competitor may not necessarily work for you. Your soccer sponsorship activities must fit within your own overall sponsorship strategy and have a clear role in meeting business objectives.

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