Whenever a major sporting event such as the FIFA World Cup or the Olympic Games comes around we are used to being bombarded with advertising and other promotional messages from sponsors and other brands associating themselves with the event.
In the case of World Cup sponsors, these associated promotional activities constitute what is known as activation. It is widely recognised that the true potential of sponsorship can only be realised through effective activation and it is no longer enough to simply plaster a brand name around stadia perimeter boards or on sports jerseys.
Some familiar brands like Coca-Cola, Visa and Adidas are activating their World Cup 2018 sponsorship via promotional packaging, television adverts, social media content and in-store promotions. However, the volume of World Cup-linked promotion, certainly in the UK, has been vastly reduced as compared with previous World Cups and there are several reasons for this.
The FIFA Brand
Firstly, the FIFA brand itself is tainted (in the West at least) from allegations of corruption.
Several major sponsors including Johnson & Johnson, Sony and Emirates declined to renew their contracts for the 2018 World Cup. Instead, FIFA had to look to China, Russia and the Middle East to fill the sponsorship void. This has resulted in brands unfamiliar to the UK public such Vivo and Dalian Wanda from China, alongside the likes of Qatar Airways and Gazprom occupying the perimeter boards around World Cup stadia. For many of these sponsors, the UK is not their target market and as such they are not activating their sponsorships in this country.
Secondly, the wider political issues surrounding Russia have led many brands, both sponsors and potential ambushers, to exercise caution in associating themselves with this year’s World Cup.
Sponsorship works on the principle of image transfer, whereby the sponsor hopes that positive associations from the sponsored property, in this case the World Cup, will rub off on their brand. However, image transfer in sponsorship is not limited to positive associations - negative associations may transfer just as easily. In the eyes of many, brand Russia is tainted politically and socially. As such, brands are reluctant to spend big on activating a sponsorship association where there is the potential for this negative image transfer to occur.
While the official sponsors may have been quiet, or focusing their marketing efforts elsewhere, what we have seen are the first few examples of non-sponsor brands engaging in ambush marketing, where they try to suggest an association with the World Cup without paying the sponsorship rights fee.
One of the most prominent of these has been the rebranding of mobile phone network Three’s shops to include three lion emojis - a reference to the Three Lions nickname of the England team.
Other England-focused ambushes have come from Umbro, Domino’s and perpetual ambusher Paddy Power. By focusing their World Cup marketing on the England team rather than the World Cup more widely, these brands have been able to take advantage of the high levels of interest in the fortunes of the England team while avoiding confronting wider political and social issues around the host nation.
It is clear that the face of FIFA World Cup sponsorship is changing. With Western brands responding to consumer pressure to act and conduct business responsibly, world football’s governing body is forced to turn its attentions East in the quest for sponsorship dollars and growth.
With future World Cups being held in Qatar in 2022 and jointly in the USA, Canada and Mexico in 2026 we are likely to see further shifts in the types of brands undertaking sponsorships and in where and how these brands activate such sponsorships.
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