Mark Ritson: Four lessons marketers can learn from Sepp Blatter

One of the great highlights of being a marketer is reading the clichéd, unintentionally hilarious articles detailing “what marketers can learn from….”. You take a current topic du jour and then append onto it a series of highly tangential marketing learnings of absolutely no value whatsoever.

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Over the years we’ve had marketers learning from ice buckets (“make it fun, make it easy”), Kim Kardashian (“your popularity is in the hands of the people”), Marvel Superheroes (“speed, agility, intelligence”), Santa (“the world is your market) and Tinder (presumably where to get a quick blow job). Well if you can’t beat the morons, become one. Here is my own personal tribute to Sepp Blatter, who has now announced his resignation as FIFA president amid corruption allegations and, you guessed it, what marketers can learn from him.

Have a great mentor

First up, you need a mentor who can show you the ropes and develop you as a manager. For a young Blatter that man was João Havelange the 7th President of Fifa. It was Havelange that spotted Blatter and made him his protégé and eventually his successor. It was also Havelange who was later allegedly paid millions in bribes and who was forced to pay back some of the money or face prosecution. Budding marketers should always be on the lookout for someone to guide them. Mentors are important.

Master inter-personal authenticity

Second, master inter-personal authenticity. One famous example was recently recounted by UEFA executive Gerhard Aigner who was invited, along with Blatter, to attend an Italian Football Federation event in Savoy – a region that straddles France and Italy. On the way there Aigner asked Blatter if they should address the audience in French or Italian. Blatter replied, ‘This is Savoy. We speak French!’ “So I’m called up to make a speech,” Aigner recalls. “I go up and speak in French. Afterwards, when he’s called up, he goes and speaks Italian! This is Blatter. And I speak better Italian than he does!” The lesson here for all marketers is that it pays to be sneaky. Write that one down.

Fully utilise soundbites

Next, it’s also important to consider the power of the soundbite in building leadership credibility. Blatter’s brave statements have tackled some of the biggest issues in sport. Who can forget his magnanimous approach to gender equality when he queried why female soccer players have to dress like men on the pitch: “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so”. Who could possibly disagree?

And then there was the masterful way Blatter handled the potentially disastrous fallout from the discovery that England captain John Terry was having an extra-marital affair with teammate Wayne Bridge’s girlfriend. “If this had happened in, let’s say, Latin countries,” Blatter explained, “Then I think he would have been applauded.” Once again, the trademark combination of misogyny and cultural stereotyping saves the day and makes everything alright.

And what about his brave stance against homophobia after the 2022 World Cup was awarded to Qatar – a country where homosexuality is a crime. “I would say that they should refrain from any sexual activities.” Once again, Blatter gets it so right. The big lesson for marketers is to carefully construct the most appropriate soundbite in your head at a public occasion and then, only when you are certain of the most prudent comment, say the exact opposite as loudly as possible.

Master social media

Another big lesson for marketers is the masterful use of social media by Blatter to build his personal legacy and spread the FIFA magic. He has amassed a following on Twitter of 2.64 million. Quite a feat and, unlike many other famous figures, he has no shortage of engagement either. On average each Blatter tweet generates hundreds of admiring comments.

Recently, for example, Blatter memorialised on Twitter those who lost their lives in the tragic 1985 Heysel stadium disaster. Some of the supportive comments that resulted included “I hope you die soon”, “On a scale of one to Robert Mugabe, how corrupt are you?” and, by far his most common comment, a four letter Anglo-Saxon noun that appears with frightening regularity beneath most of his tweets.

Once again marketers should take note. Despite almost total antipathy on social media Blatter keeps tweeting. He is a determined leader and (more likely) he probably isn’t actually being shown any of the comments he is generating.

So there we have it. A masterclass in marketing from Sepp Blatter. Yes, it was petty and pointless but I’d argue it was still more useful than the one about Kim Kardashian.

Article updated 5.56pm on 2/6/15 to reflect Sepp Blatter’s resignation.

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