Why Participate In The Most Controversial World Cup Ever?

Let’s be clear, the 2022 Qatar World Cup is just one of many World Cups that should not have occurred (previous poor choices for hosts included Russia and Argentina, both brutal dictatorships when they hosted).

There is an excellent documentary right now on Netflix called “FIFA Uncovered,” which outlines how corrupt the organization and its sibling organizations has been throughout its history.

In the 2000s, I was living the FIFA Sponsorship World on the inside at the time, working at one, then another large FIFA sponsor. 

Back then, FIFA’s understanding was that a World Cup sponsor was supposed to pony up an enormous amount of cash, get stadium signage and maybe in-stadium sales (if your product category made sense, like Coca-Cola and Budweiser vs Hyundai or Qatar Airways).
Getting anything else was challenging.

The Coca-Cola Company (where I was involved in the World Cups of 2002 and 2006) was the originator of fan and in-market activation. We told FIFA that boards on the pitch carried little value (Coca-Cola the brand has a 99% global brand awareness score), so we proposed to diversify the brands on show to increase our ROI.

After an initial "no," we eventually managed to agree on a "yes" (Coke Zero and Powerade were the first “other” brands in rotation on the pitch, if memory serves). We repeated this idea when I was at AB-InBev in 2010, showcasing local beer brands that corresponded with the countries playing, and Budweiser for all other matches.

Much has been made of the beer ban in the stadiums this year. Don’t get me wrong, any country loves the little “extra” that in-stadium beer sales bring to their annual volume. But not selling beer in the stadiums is not make or break for a company like AB-InBev. In fact, an argument could be made that it delivers some nice savings, because the logistics around beer delivery and sales in stadiums during a tournament are daunting and expensive.

The real ROI for investments in events like the World Cup comes from in-market activation. Having the rights to market the FIFA World Cup as an official partner allows you to take that event and put it on packages, bring it in store, and incorporate it on all your marketing collateral. But over the last 20 years we have learned that this value is also grossly overpriced and overvalued.

After each event, there is always the “marketing popularity contest” in the form of research into which official sponsor generated the highest awareness of their involvement in the event. And each time, it's clear that non-official event sponsors, who tie themselves to either individual players or individual national teams, do equally well and sometimes better than official sponsors. Consumers can’t tell the difference.

Now add this year’s controversy about the host country. Marketers and (sports) celebrities are actively targeted to choose sides, if they don’t already actively state their support for migrant workers, the LGBTQ community, or efforts to combat global warming. Qatar had high hopes to showcase itself as a modern Muslim country on the world stage. Instead, the country scores against itself with last-minute bans on rainbow armbands for captains on the pitch, or beer sales in stadiums.

The FIFA World Cup is a bit like Elon Musk’sTwitter. Many advertisers have chosen not to activate the event, for economic and/or political reasons. And that's probably the right thing to do.

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