What Coca-Cola's sponsorship of Fifa 18 virtual footballer Alex Hunter means for the future of influencers

Alex Hunter enjoys Coke Zero Sugar

Brands often harness ambassadors to spread their messages among desired audiences but Coca-Cola shook up this practice after unveiling its sponsorship of a fictional and virtual footballer, Alex Hunter, the protagonist of EA Sports’ Fifa 18 video game.

The protagonist of the game's narrative-driven 'The Journey' mode will become a Coca-Cola Zero Sugar ambassador during the course of the season. While allowing for a legitimate professional footballer experience, the move also advertises the brand to the player on a meta level, building upon Hunter's inclusion in the Adidas First Never Follows campaign in Fifa 17.

While advertisers have been experimenting with digitally resurrecting culture icons to punt product for many a decade, this marks the first meaningful attempt at creating a character and attaching a brand and a narrative to them – a risky move in the difficult to crack video games market. Coca-Cola supports a many sports and lifestyle influencers, however, it seems to be experimenting with a new approach, whereupon it holds all the cards without the threat of any gaffes that can often sully a commercial partnership.

The Drum touched down with industry experts to learn what effects the move will have.

Neil Hopkins, director of M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment, described how brands often try and navigate the "Wild West world" of eSports and videogames, and that Fifa's activity is "a relatively straightforward way of reaching what is without doubt an incredibly large and highly-engaged audience".

What makes it an appealing spot is that it is a fertile audience too, "it understands and is comfortable with the role sponsors play in sport". In fact, Fifa has had sponsors in the game as long as it has been physically capable of graphically rendering them. Users are acclimatised to them in this context.

The partnership has its short-comings: "The likes of Alex Hunter will be unable to sign autographs or snip the ribbon on a store opening in the time-honoured tradition of football ambassadors going back to George Best but then, ‘real-life’ sports celebrity ambassadors are rarely utilised in such a way in the digital age."

Off-setting this is the fact "virtual deals are also comparatively risk-free territory for brands as virtual stars are unlikely to be arrested for drink driving; to appear on the front page of tabloid newspapers after a late-night transgression; or to inadvertently tweet criticism of their opponents, teammates or even sponsors."

He hinted that the emergence of AI could open up new avenues in the virtual athlete space and that brands will be watching the deal closely as they too look for ways to organically enter the games market.

eSports not a minor sideshow

Jim Dowling, managing director of Havas' Cake, underlined that Coca-Cola has operated in eSports for some years, but this new move "reaffirms that eSports is not some minor sideshow, it is a mainstream marketing platform in its own right".

The unexpected move from the brand puts it in slightly unknown territory. "As a marketing model, it has elements of sport’s structure, in terms of talent, teams, leagues and events, with sufficient scale to be useful for a global brand, but which skews younger than many sports offering similar numbers."

But Coca-Cola operates from a position of strength, due to it operating in the space for numerous years. "The brand is a respected partner by the communities it is engaging with. It has listened, rather than jumped in to the space. The work around creating a new star player is part of that tradition. It’s an authentic addition to the landscape."

Rhian Mason, content strategy director at ‎IPG Mediabrands defined the relationship of the partnership in detail. EA Sports created a spot for a sponsor in the fabric of its narrative and ended up with a sponsor that didn't feel out of place in the life of a footballer. “It’s a smart reciprocal relationship – Coca-Cola have seamlessly integrated their brand into the character’s narrative."

More importantly, it is unlikely to turn off players of an already-fully priced, and annually released sports video game, that is also buffed up with microstransactions. "The product placement doesn’t impinge on the user experience, if anything it makes it feel more realistic and true to life; who wouldn’t want to experience fame and a real life endorsement deal, just like their favourite players.”

Rhian's colleague, Andy Fairclough, social strategy director EMEA at ‎IPG Mediabrands (the pair penned a opinion piece on gaming advocacy earlier this week), underlined that the partnership was mutually beneficial, especially in the real world where Fifa 18 is getting to piggyback Coca-Cola out of home advertising placements like the 3D billboard in Times Square.

“It’s mutually beneficial to both brands because Coke is helping to sell Fifa via its own high spend advertising, such as its Times Square spot. Fifa using Coca-Cola makes the gaming experience more believable; back in the original Fifa advertising hoardings bearing real life sponsors made the experience feel more genuine.

Fairclough added: "Product placements in other titles already add a level of authenticity – brands are everywhere in real life," and he went as far to say that fans seek so much realism in the game that they "expect the same in games to enhance the immersive aspect" with brand involvement.

Tom Henderson, co-founder and director of Digital Sports MGMT, a former EA Sports employee who previously ran Fifa partnerships, told The Drum: “It's incredible to see how brands are now integrating into the virtual world of Fifa 18.'

He reflected: "It started years ago with adboards in Career Mode and now we're seeing amazing activations such as Coca-Cola sponsoring Alex Hunter. I think we'll see more brands step into the space especially as Fifa e-sports grows in profile. There will always be licensing challenges to navigate, however when something like this integration comes off, the benefits to the brand are immense – it's an exciting time for Fifa fans.”

Fifa 18 is released across the major gaming platforms 29 September.

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John McCarthy

John is an entertainment marketing reporter at The Drum. He writes about the amazing marketing stories coming from the movie, TV, music and video game industries. He's also the hunt for the weirder trends in marketing and advertising.

Fuelled by tea.

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