Fifa's official World Cup 2018 sponsorship deals will have set marketers back as much as £100m annually and Ken Robertson, ambush marketing expert and former head of mischief at bookmaker Paddy Power, has said any chief marketing officer that has coughed up the cash "should be shot".
Robertson served as top marketer at the controversy-loving bookmaker for five years, overseeing some of its biggest and best stunts at the Euros and the World Cup, he did so without spending a penny on sponsoring these flagship tournaments. He urged more marketers to embrace this spirited approach.
“Any CMO who spends £100m on a category sponsorship at a World Cup should be shot, I think it is an appalling waste of money. It is a wallpaper logo. People expect more from brands now than seeing them on the perimeter boards during a major event.These partnerships show a lack of imagination and even some insecurity from the brand.”
Bold assertions. And it may come as no surprise that official World Cup sponsor Visa disagrees with this assessment. Chris Curtin, chief brand and innovation marketing officer at Visa, recently told The Drum that the World Cup is one of the "last unchallenged bastions of appointment viewing." Fifa estimates that the tournament will reach as many as 3.2bn people. Only about half of this figure live in households with a TV. Furthermore, there are only 7.6bn people on the planet which goes to highlight the sheer scale of this estimated viewership.
Similarly, AB InBev has concocted its largest ever marketing campaign to support Budweiser’s partnership with the Games, so it is fair to say it is putting all of its power behind the drive.
Despite the exclusivity promised to these brands, Russia will be ripe for ambush marketing, be it on the ground, or on social media. These interloper may have a tough time finding loopholes and vulnerabilities in the footballing body's hefty corporate rule book, which among other things protects its IP and the tournament's exclusivity for sponsors.
Since 2012, it has had ambush marketing on lockdown and it all comes back harkens back to Robertson, Danish striker Nicholas Bendtner and a pair of boxer shorts.
A brief stint of success
Paddy Power set up a "classic ambush" during the Denmark vs Portugal group match during the Euros in 2012. If Bendtner scored, he was to pull down his shorts and reveal his lucky Paddy Power briefs.
Robertson recalled that the incident wasn't quite smooth sailing. "We agreed if he scored he would unveil his lucky Paddy Power underwear but he scored the first goal and he didn't do it, we thought he bottled it.
"Ronaldo then equalised, so then true to form Bendtner went up and scored the winner. Then he revealed the lucky pants."
A pair of branded pants spurned Uefa, and by extension Fifa, to introduce severe penalties for brands intruding into the space. Bendtner was fined £80,000 and was suspended from the next fixture. He breached a rule stating: "Players must not reveal undershirts which contain slogans or advertising. A player removing his jersey to reveal slogans will be sanctioned by the competition organiser."
Additionally, The Danish FA, sponsored by rival betting company Ladbrokes, was as equally unhappy with Bendtner's shenanigans.
Since this transgression, Uefa rules have changed. Fines have no cap and are aimed at the football associations instead of the players perpetrating the stunt. "That pretty much eliminated the opportunity for that kind of ambush," admitted Robertson.
No longer could brands like Paddy Power - or Bavaria - cause a ruckus during the matches.
What marketers should do
Two years later, Robertson was looking to cause a stir at the World Cup in Brazil. With the physical stadiums effectively closed to on-the-pitch disruptions, the brand instead let social media and the press do the hard work. Robertson honed in on the issue of deforestation and created a devious piece of fake news - a photoshop of the rainforest felled to read 'C'mon England PP'.
He says: "We saw the opportunity to shine a light on this issue by orchestrating what you would call a masterclass in fake news. We led people to believe that we had chopped down a massive swathe of the rainforest. We leaked the photographs and stepped away from it and let the whole thing percolate."
"We became part of the World Cup narrative by perpetrating this hoax and then revealing it was actually a collaboration with Greenpeace. All of a sudden, you go from sinner to saint, you elevate the brand into the narrative."
While the battlegrounds, or ambush spots, for brands wanting a say in World Cup discourse may have moved, Robertson's definition holds true. "Ambush marketing, in essence, means attaching your brand to something you don't have a commercial interest in. Recently we've had to come at it more laterally."
Doing the unexpected helps elevate brands he said citing getting Dr Stephen Hawking on board to grant England the winning formula for Euro 2016. It's all part of the public's demand for "more sophisticated communications".
Don’t ignore politics
Fifa has struggled to drum up sponsors for the World Cup in Russia in light of its corruption scandal and internal investigations. Even in Russian, sponsorship uptake was slower than expected with only Gazprom joining Alfa-Bank and Rostelecom on the roster. Famously, space opened up after Continental, Johnson & Johnson and Castrol all backed out in 2015.
Outside of this elite, many upstart brands may be looking at the World Cup in Russia as an opportunity to say something, whether that is condemning the political situation in Russia, its attitudes towards LGBT people and free speech - or even questioning the morals of brands who claim they are operating in a political vacuum, focused only on the football.
To these gutsy brands who may swing a punch, Robertson said: "I tip my hat to any brands willing to have a crack at the World Cup and Russia. We're working on a campaign that ticks that box. It is a fertile place for a brand to play in, it is not without risk but it plays into the very interesting narrative at the moment that is more than football and sport."
"You can't operate detached from the political, the lines are blurry at the moment. The narrative around political stability, homophobia and more. It cannot just be football. No way."
He concluded: "You can't operate detached from the political, the lines are blurry at the moment. The narrative around political stability, homophobia and more. It cannot just be football. No way."