Did marketing score at the World Cup?

Did marketing score at the World Cup?

Alongside the sporting excitement, the 2018 football World Cup was also a uniquely political event. How did brands react to the tournament, what were the major marketing moments, and what does it all mean for Qatar 2022?


The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia has been heralded as one of the ‘greatest ever’. In a tournament that was sent to be rife with political tension and unease, no one could have predicted the football fever that swept the nation when England made it through to the semi-finals.

The tournament posed one golden question: could sport trump politics? Could the action on the pitch avoid being overshadowed by a range of issues bubbling just below the surface? How on earth could brands navigate this landscape?

The biggest global brands certainly poured money into the tournament, while billions of people savoured a festival of sport that delivered drama, heartache and spectacle in equal measure. In fact, teams like Panama, attending the World Cup for the first time in the nation’s history, brought a whole new audience with them – and fans in Peru even went so far as to sell cars, quit their jobs and make the 64-hour round trip across Russia to see their country play.

The dilemma for brands

Football World Cup tournaments are among the most lucrative platforms for marketers. But with questions over world issues and political tensions swirling in the media, brands that declared unconditional support for the tournament risked upsetting customers sensitive to these issues. Undoubtedly, consumers are more concerned than ever about the ethical performance of brands, and a misstep on this largest of stages could have been costly. 

As such, in the lead-up to the tournament, instead of boasting about their campaigns, many brands played it cool – only releasing details of their activity days before the event. 

Global brands, such as Coca-Cola, Hyundai and Budweiser, continued their support of the event, while established sponsors Sony, Johnson & Johnson and BP’s Castrol decided not to. This left the door open to Chinese brands, who grasped the opportunity to connect with millions of travelling fans. Consequently, fans and TV audiences were exposed to new brands, such as Vivo mobile phones and Hisense fridges.

Before the tournament started, Chris Daly, chief executive of CIM, issued advice to marketers on how to navigate this unfamiliar advertising environment. Consequently, he said it was crucial for brands to be aware of the wider picture: “...with the world’s audience watching from their sofas and smartphones, brands must deliver authentic, socially aware creatives that create real emotional connections.”

A new breed of advertising 

Marketing stunts were minimised this World Cup (we all remember the infamous South African World Cup stunt, where 36 women were ejected from a match for promoting a Dutch brewery). However, some organisations in the UK and around the world took unconventional routes to connecting with fans and communicating value-led messaging.

An ingenious group of six fans managed to create a ‘human flag’, thanks to Spain’s largest LGBTQ organisation, FELGTB and Madrid advertising agency LOLA MullenLowe. Each fan wore their nation’s home kit, the colours of which came together to form the rainbow pride flag. This gloriously simple concept shows what a little creative thinking can achieve, and generated huge media coverage for a key issue.

Leveraging World Cup fever to deliver important messages, Tesco’s F&F clothing brand partnered with leading charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), to help raise awareness of male mental health in the UK. CALM ambassador Romesh Ranganathan and comedian Rob Beckett partnered to support the #MarkYourMan campaign, which aimed to encourage men to support each other, as they would with their favourite football team. A series of online films were posted on social media, which were supported by print and retail messaging.

Towards Qatar 2022

Moscow will consider the World Cup a huge success in PR terms. Chinese brands who saw an opportunity in the reticence of others will undoubtedly claim victory. Football fans will also surely feel spoiled by the huge dose of excitement delivered by the tournament. But as thoughts turn towards the Euros in 2020, and the next World Cup in Qatar 2022, it will be interesting to see how the marketing landscape will again change.

James Richards
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