Neil Davidson: four own goals from the Russia World Cup

The World Cup is one of the world’s biggest marketing opportunities – but some brands’ strategies have more holes than Panama’s defence. Here are four lessons we’ve learned from the tournament so far.

1. Free Whoppers for ‘husband-hunters’ was a right royal mistake

The Russian arm of fast-food chain Burger King has apologised after offering women a reward of 3m roubles (£36,000) and free Whopper burgers for life if they got pregnant by a World Cup player.

“Women who manage to get the best football genes will promote the Russian team’s success for generations to come,” the advert said. But the promotion caused public outrage in the host nation, forcing Burger King to withdraw it.

It’s no wonder that companies worldwide are clamouring to grab a piece of the World Cup action: sports marketing offers an unparalleled opportunity to connect with large audiences in a deep, emotional way in real time.

But this rush to join the bandwagon can leave many with sports properties and campaigns that don’t optimise their impact on the bottom line. Or, like Burger King’s ‘husband-hunter’ effort, are ill-thought through and utterly tone deaf.

The worst-case scenario is interrupting or even spoiling the enjoyment of fans. Inspiring public outrage in Russia, Burger King has certainly ticked this box.

This marketing crime is closely followed by either becoming little more than corporate graffiti or creating a campaign with a generic brand message like the all-too-familiar ‘we’re as passionate as you are’ nonsense. Instead delivering true value from sports marketing campaigns requires amplification of the fan experience.

2. Qatar Airways’ rhythm is going to get them – nowhere

Qatar Airways has managed to land in the corporate graffiti camp (Look! There’s the World Cup next to its logo!) without its World Cup campaign ever having taken off.

As an official sponsor of the tournament, it asked its Twitter and Instagram followers to share their ball skills to be in with a chance to win two business class tickets, using hashtag #onyourfeet. Unfortunately, this is also the name of Gloria Estefan’s new Broadway musical as well as being used by various creams and treatments for sore feet.

Sponsoring a sport, team, player or coverage gives your brand permission to be part of the conversation around sport, but you need to demonstrate credibility and enhance the fans’ experience if they’re going to fully engage with your brand and messaging.

There is a not-so-great history of airlines doing town hall football sponsorships – a failure to be credible and enhance the fans’ experience means Qatar Airways has taken its place among some classics misfires for all the wrong reasons.

It’s also interesting to note that FIFA’s only new deals since 2015 have been with companies from Qatar – which hosts the World Cup in 2022 – Russia and China. Now, why might that be?

3. FIFA is short on mutually beneficial and supportive partnerships

The Economist reported that, of the 34 sponsorship slots on offer for the tournament in Russia, only 19 have been filled. It’s a stark change from 2014, when sponsorship packages sold out long before kick-off.

The World Cup is one of the world’s most-watched television events, so big companies have traditionally competed fiercely for the sponsorship slots on offer. So why has this World Cup seen FIFA so short on partners?

Any collaboration between a brand and the rights holder will fail if the two parties don’t work together to ensure both parties can optimise the benefits of the alliance, and share a common goal and values.

Back to The Economist, which noted that in 2015, American prosecutors indicted some 40 individuals and entities associated with FIFA on a range of corruption charges. So much for sharing common values. The charges stoked long-bubbling concerns among the organisation’s corporate partners about whether their association with FIFA exposed them to reputational and financial damage.

That said corporate sponsors might have reacted differently if this World Cup was held in a country other than Russia, which is increasingly mistrusted by the West thanks to Putin, the Salisbury poisonings, (alleged) meddling in the US election, a police state and a poor record on racism and homophobia.

So, sponsors have voted with their feet. Hopefully they have found a partner elsewhere with whom they do share values – as well as sharing information and opportunities, and having regular meetings to discuss new or enhanced initiatives and communication with the fans. Only then can both parties truly benefit.

4. Any brand CMO spending big to sponsor the World Cup ‘should be shot’

So says Ken Robertson, former head of mischief at bookmaker Paddy Power. Paying to be an official sponsor is, he told The Drum, an “appalling waste of money..people expect more from brands now than seeing them on the perimeter boards during a major event.”

And he’s right. You don’t have to be an official World Cup partner to provide real value to fans (not just your brand). Fans see through disingenuous ‘passion’ from brands milking them and the sport for profit. Paddy Power’s tongue-firmly-in-cheek running World Cup commentary on Twitter shows it understands the games fans better than most. But they have also gone one better.

Their ‘From Russia with Equal Love’ campaign is brilliant. For every goal the Russian team score, Paddy Power has pledged to donate £10,000 to LGBT+ causes. Rather wonderfully, the hosts – a country whose politics, rather than people, has a woeful reputation for homophobia – are currently the tournament’s top scorers, with eight goals after just two games. Now that, along with the #RainbowRussians hashtag, is something that should resonate with every football fan and leave a lasting impression.

Neil Davidson is managing director of HeyHuman

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