The Russia World Cup: A brand risk or a unique opportunity?

While brands are hoping to keep a safe distance between their World Cup sponsorship and geopolitical events in Russia, they will need a strategy that speaks to fans in the host country and around the world.

Just 50 days out from one of the world’s biggest sporting events, brands still appear reluctant to get on board as FIFA World Cup sponsors or sound the whistle on their campaigns.

Ahead of the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, sponsors were touting their campaigns months in advance, signing up the stars of the game and getting their messages ready for the tournament. But this year, just weeks out from the start, few sponsors have started talking about their plans, with most brands telling Marketing Week that they won’t be ready to do so until much closer to the start of the tournament.

FIFA has also struggled to fill its three tiers of sponsorship for the World Cup and its financial health has taken a hit – with the company estimated to have filed losses of £400m in 2017.

There are eight spots for top-tier partners, six spots for normal sponsors and another 20 opportunities for regional supporters; but currently many of these deals remain unsigned. At the time of writing, FIFA had filled seven of the top eight spots with stalwarts such as Visa, Coca-Cola and Adidas, as well as newcomer Qatar Airways. Likewise, the second tier is almost full with Hisense joining the likes of McDonald’s.

However, FIFA’s biggest challenge is getting regional sponsors to join the third group – just three companies had signed up at the beginning of April and time is running out to sign up another 17.

Just yesterday (23 April), FIFA did bring state-controlled Russian diamond miner Alrosa on board as a regional sponsor, completing its slate of third-tier European backers. But the other regional slots for North and Central America, South America, Africa and the Middle East, and Asia are still empty.

It is not hard to see why brands might be more cautious this time around.

The allegations of corruption and bribery that have dogged FIFA over the past few years have not gone away. It has struggled to attract Western sponsors, with companies such as Sony and Johnson & Johnson opting not to renew deals after the 2014 event. That has left FIFA reliant on Chinese firms such as Alibaba, Hisense and Yadea, most of which are not brands with global cachet.

And now geopolitical events are threatening to overshadow this year’s tournament. Russia’s support of Syria in its civil war, accusations it attempted to assassinate a former spy with a nerve agent on British soil and ongoing investigations into its role in influencing democratic elections could all reflect poorly on sponsors.

Russia’s anti-LGBTQ policies are also of concern, while BAME players such as Ivorian Yaya Touré have raised concerns over racism and warned that black players could boycott the World Cup unless Russia addresses the issue.

READ MORE: Mark Ritson – Which sponsors would trust the World Cup to protect their brand in 2018?

As if that weren’t enough, for the tournament itself Russia’s 11 time zones and its sheer size present significant logistical challenges.

Given the tarnished reputations of both FIFA and Russia, it is not surprising marketers are questioning if the risks will outweigh the benefits. None of the sponsors Marketing Week contacted was willing to address these issues.

But they are clearly weighing on brands’ minds.

People are absurdly passionate about football, it creates a connective tissue.

James Kirkham, Copa90

Yet James Kirkham, head of football media network Copa90, believes while pre-tournament events will “no doubt cast a shadow”, they will cause “lateness rather than abstinence” among both football fans, sponsors and brands more generally.

“People are absurdly passionate about football, it creates a connective tissue,” he adds.

It is that passion that brands hope to tap into. According to a survey of more than 80,000 people by research firm GlobalWebIndex, 47% of the global online population will watch the World Cup either online or on TV. In Latin America that figure climbs to 65% (but is only 23% in North America).

And its appeal extends well beyond normal football fans. For example, in Europe just 25% of the online population watch the Premier League, but this will rise to 47% for the World Cup.

When the world’s star players take to the turf and flags are hanging from every pub, sponsors will hope that all the negative pre-event worries will be forgotten and the world’s passion for football will take over.

Shaking off the stereotypes of Russia

‘Heavy drinkers’, ‘corrupt’, ‘backwards’, ‘aggressive’ and ‘rude’ are how most Britons describe Russians, according to Russian cultural expert and the founder of cultural consultancy SLS Insights and Planning, Steven Lacey, who claims the host country is one of the most stereotyped nation’s in the world. However, he says Russia is actually home to more than 185 different ethnic groups and therefore opens up a major gateway for brands to tap into a multicultural and global audience.

“It’s hard for people of a Western mindset to understand what’s going on in Russia. It’s a huge, expansive country where the east meets and west and is very different in each area. The World Cup is a massive stage for Russia and its government would want nothing but to showcase its multiculturalism and the fact it’s open to the world, but we have this mistrust and misunderstanding,” Lacey tells Marketing Week.

I don’t want to see Russian dolls or bears in the snow. Brands need to show the real Russia.

Steven Lacey, SLS Insights and Planning

According to Lacey, the Russian government will have to work hard to change people’s perceptions of the nation. And he believes brands can use their World Cup campaigns to do the same thing with challenging campaigns that move beyond stereotypes.

“This is a massive opportunity for marketers to showcase their brand on the world stage and really target Russia’s huge population. But their campaigns have to appeal across the board. They have to show that we’re a united world because otherwise what happens is we get ‘Russia vs the rest of the world’,” he says.

“I don’t want to see Russian dolls or bears in the snow. Brands need to show the real Russia and the multitude of the country that has so many cultural touchpoints across such a vast landscape.”

Kirkham agrees, saying there is an opportunity for brands to target football fans that might also have a keen interest in music or fashion.

“We need to look at the connection between football and fashion, or football and music. Russia is a creative opportunity for brands to prove that it’s not just bear hunting and fur hats,” he says. “Fans don’t just love football and nothing else, they love music or fashion. There’s this rich cultural side to Russia that barely gets a mention in Western media.”

Kirkham suggests that once the World Cup teams are revealed in May, brands should align themselves with particular players because the brand presence of that player will “echo through” and be something “fans will want to follow”.

Getting the message across at scale

Due to the timezones in Russia, about 40% of the world’s population will be asleep when matches are being played. That means the way fans organise, consume, watch and curate games will be different and that social media will be more powerful than ever, according to Kirkham.

In particular, young people often consume small nuggets of the games via social media, rather than watching the full game. That means brands need to think carefully about where they put their messages.

GlobalWebIndex research found that, of those planning to watch the World Cup, YouTube is the most popular social media platform, ahead of Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Twitter. But this varies significantly between regions. In China, for example, it is WeChat, Youku and Sina Weibo where consumers flock.

“Consumers decide when they want it, at what point, in what platform and when it suits them. The content will sit there and people will decide when they consume it; brands who adjust to this will win,” Kirkham says.

“The World Cup will be as dispersed as it’s ever been, it will be fragmented, split up into little moments and because of time zones we will consume the game a bit like the blurb on the back off a book.”

Lacey is urging brands to “get out there” and not to work remotely from their HQs in New York or London if they want to achieve World Cup success.

“Time zones make content management really difficult; one of the problems a lot of broadcasters will face is that they’re not going out to Russia. I don’t think they’re going to understand the ‘real’ Russia and shouldn’t be relying on second hand reports,” says Lacey.

“Brands should be out there understanding Russia and learning about how they can maximise reach.”

Yet it is not the audience in Russia that matters most to sponsors, it is the 3.5 billion people from more than 200 countries watching at home that are the real attraction for brands.

Nigel Currie, a sports sponsorship expert at NC Partnership, says that while sponsors will have activities and programmes in place to target travelling fans, the real target is the global audience watching online, through social networks or on TV.

“You don’t pay up to $200m for a multi-sponsor property unless it can give you access to a significantly high proportion of the world ‘s population. The major brands involved in the World Cup tend to operate in many different territories and will have local campaigns developed for different markets,” he says.

Given that huge investment, brands need to be sure that they are getting return on investment and understanding what success looks like and how to achieve it. For some brands, such as Hisense and Qatar Airways, it is about bringing their brands to the global stage; while, for longer standing sponsors such as Coca-Cola and Adidas, it is the association with world-class footballers and an event that has the power to bring people together.

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