New Balance aims to avoid tournament ‘hype’ in World Cup debut

While New Balance admits it can’t rival Adidas and Nike on spend, it says a focus on social engagement and Russian football culture, rather than the “hype'” of the tournament, will help it compete as it takes part in its first World Cup.

New Balance is making its World Cup debut as it looks to shake up the football market and take market share from incumbents Nike and Adidas.

Speaking to Marketing Week ahead of the World Cup kick-off in Russia on Thursday (14 June), New Balance’s general manager of global football Kenny McCallum admits the company can’t compete with the likes of Adidas and Nike when it comes to marketing spend, but is instead hoping to gain an edge through the brand’s “tactical and focused” approach.

“Competing with Adidas and Nike is a perennial challenge, but there are certainly areas and opportunities that you can exploit when you’re not paying the official sponsor ticket price or investing heavily above-the-line,” he says.

“The competition can get carried away with the ‘hype aspect’ of the tournament. You see dollars tied up in official sponsorship, but we’re looking to engage in a real sense and uncover the cultural sense of football within Russia.”

While New Balance may have shaken off its challenger brand status in the sports industry generally, it only moved into the football market three yeas ago. The Russian World Cup will mark the first time the sportswear label has had a presence on pitch at the global event.

The brand is providing the kit for Costa Rica (which will be making its fifth appearance at the tournament) and Panama, which has made it to the World Cup for the first time in its history. New Balance has also partnered with five key players who will don the brand’s apparel: Tim Cahill (Australia), Sadio Mané (Senegal), Massimo Luongo (Australia), Kendall Waston (Costa Rica) and Jamie Penedo (Panama).

In May, New Balance also launched its limited edition Russian-inspired football and lifestyle collection donned the ‘Otruska Pack’. The pack includes two new boots, the Furon 4.0 and the Tekela, which will be worn by New Balance-sponsored players at the World Cup.

According to the sportswear giant, the collection is both “striking and unconventional” and has a “distinctive Russian feel”. To celebrate the launch, New Balance released two films depicting the “contrasting forces of idealistic Russian beauty and portentous Soviet power” that make up ‘Dusha’ (the Russian Soul) with the aim of “exciting consumers and driving focus toward the product”.

“This is the first World Cup that New Balance will be on the pitch from a boot and kit perspective because the brand in football is only three years old, but we will have an on-pitch presence from both team and player perspective,” says McCallum.

Engaging consumers around the World Cup

The kit and boots mark the first part of a two-pronged push by New Balance to make a splash at the World Cup with a strategy that McCallum says has been 18 months in the making. The second part is a docus-series, titled ‘Make it to Moscow’, the explores football culture in Russia.

Produced with creative agency Zak, the four-part series, features YouTubers Theo Baker, Charlie Morley and Jemel One Five, together with Russian Vlogger Alex Zhuravlev, touring four of the tournament’s host cities – Moscow, St Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Kazan.

The YouTubers will embark on a series of challenges, interviews and football games with the aim of selecting the best talent to play in a final in Moscow in a 4v4 competition online. The content will be hosted on global media network, which will help “amplify the content and push it out to New Balance’s audience”. A new episode will be rolled out each week during the tournament.

The competition can get carried away with the ‘hype aspect’ of the tournament. You see dollars tied up in official sponsorship, but we’re looking to engage in a real sense and uncover the cultural sense of football within Russia.

Kenny McCallum, New Balance

“The content strand of our activation really forms the crux of the engagement with consumers that we’re hoping to achieve during the tournament and it’s where we as a brand will differ from our competitors,” he says.

“One of the things we worked from was the consumer-out perspective. And that starts with who our consumer is. Our focus is on a team consumer globally who can participate in football and once you get under the skin of that consumer you learn they are very much a digital and social animal.”

Credit: Zak Agency

In the three years since it started producing football apparel, New Balance has grown its cumulative audience across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram so much that it’s now the fourth biggest football brand on those platform in terms of audience size (behind Nike, Adidas and Puma).

Shaking off geopolitical issues in Russia

McCallum highlights the importance of being able to penetrate the football market using a digital and social approach. The Made it to Moscow series will offer both short- and longer-form video to match whichever platform it’s appearing on, with the sole aim of ensuring the brand “remains present”.

“The choice for a consumer is better than ever and the convergence of digital into live events is changing and will continue to change. The way we look at it is each platform has a role to play and consumers have expectation of those platforms,” McCallum says.

“We’ll always aim to make sure we are always present and in discussion around the major event and around the assets we partner with because ultimately the measure of success is how much a consumer engages in the content you publish.”

When asked about the geopolitical issues surrounding Russia, McCallum says New Balance can’t help but be aware of the concerns coming out of the host nation but nothing has yet threatened the brand’s plans.

“The political situation has changed recently and as a brand we’re aware of it and feel we have to be aware of the situation because it could impact our plans in a sense that we may refrain from publishing content if there is sensitivity relevant to the situation. But as it stands at this stage the political scene is very much different from the focus on the tournament,” he says.

“We’ll continue to monitor because it could affect our plans, but at this stage it certainly hasn’t.”

Despite the off-pitch concerns, there is still huge competition among brands to reach the World Cup’s vast audience. Yet McCallum believes there is still room for emerging football brands such as New Balance to gain market share and drive significant growth.

“We’ve done that in football and in a football sense, but we’re only three years in the sport so very much at the beginning of the journey in football,” he says.