Advertising Sports Marketing Fifa World Cup

Marketers reveal how to ambush the World Cup without paying the penalty


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

June 21, 2018 | 13 min read

With the World Cup now well underway, it is clear that hundreds of brands are trying to cause a stir at the global event which organiser Fifa boasts will attract 3.2bn viewers. To do so, brands were presented with a few choices: spend £100m to get involved with Fifa, sponsor a nation, take on a media partner or adopt a stealthier approach and ambush the tournament.

On the value of taking the straight-laced approach and paying to be an official Fifa sponsor, Chris Curtin, chief brand and innovation marketing officer at Visa, says the World Cup is one of the “last unchallenged bastions of appointment viewing”.

And he stresses that the tournament itself also shares Visa's values. “It has a borderless view of the world and brings the world together. It is unlike anything else, and for a global brand like Visa, that's why we are attracted to it. It hits every generation, every nationality and both females and males. It is a unique megaphone through which we can tell the Visa story and a unique platform that we can show the best of Visa as a business."

Similarly, Roel de Vries, vice president and global head of marketing, comms and brand strategy at Champions League sponsor Nissan, feels marquee sports sponsorships are more valuable than they sometimes get credit for (although he thinks the World Cup, coming once every four years, is too infrequent to effectively capitalise on). "When people say that these things are just too obvious or a waste of money, I think they don’t really understand why we do this," he says.

"The power has gone to consumer, they watch what they want when they want. Most people, whether we like it or not, do not want to see the ads. They go where there are no ads. In the digital side, there are adblockers and ad skips so as marketers we have to ask, how do I still reach my consumer?

"With the Champions League, if the advertising is done well, it is part of the entertainment, and consumers don’t mind it."

Other options?

In stark opposition, former Paddy Power head of mischief, Ken Robertson, jokes that CMOs spending up to £100m on a top level football sponsorship “should be shot”. Robertson, who recently founded his own agency called Tenth Man, says: “I think it is an appalling waste of money. It is a wallpaper logo. People expect more from brands now than seeing it on the perimeter boards during a major event, they expect more sophisticated comms from brands. These CMOs show a lack of imagination and insecurity.”

That's not to say that it is not worth activating around the World Cup, but it is now more difficult for ambushers to get involved, in part thanks to Robertson, Nicholas Bendtner and a pair of green branded briefs.

“I tip my hat to any brands willing to have a crack at the World Cup and Russia," says Robertson. "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. Brands are so cautious about any kind of guerrilla marketing activity.”

The major challenge at the World Cup is finding a way to stand out from the myriad other brands trying to make their mark. Kenny McCallum is trying to do just that as general manager of global football at New Balance, an apparel brand on the ground in Russia attempting to carve its niche in the sport underneath the big-hitters like Nike and Adidas. He says: “There are hundreds of brands that activate outside these sponsorship so clearly there is a benefit, there has to be otherwise they wouldn't be doing it."

But as McCallum, who previously handled sponsorships and partnerships at the FA, puts it: "football brands and every other category under the sun will attach themselves to the sport for about two months".

Guerilla marketers have stood out at least, although often for the wrong reasons. Mastercard, trying to irk official sponsor and rival Visa, ran a campaign which was heavily criticised on social media for 'gamifying' starvation.

For every goal scored by superstars Neymar or Messi (at the time of publishing still 0...), the company said it would donate 10,000 meals to the World Food Programme. The Times sports writer Henry Winter questioned why the company wouldn’t just give the meals away anyway.

Former England striker Ian Wright dubbed it “easily the worst marketing I have seen,” and James Whatley, planning partner at Ogilvy UK, wrote in The Drum: “It didn’t for one second think about how its message might be perceived and it didn’t once look outside the inside of its own boardroom to see how the main audience for this competition, Latin America, might respond. Tone deaf. Inauthentic.

Similarly Lufthansa took flak for shooting its Moscow creative in Kiev, Ukraine, a nation in stand-off with Russia over the occupied region of Crimea. It seems like an obvious error looking back. And finally we've got Burger King offering a lifetime of Whoppers to mothers who get impregnated by World Cup footballers. That promo did not last long at all.

So it is clear, there are dangers.

Save money, make it funny

Paddy Power even briefly irked audiences with a campaign purporting to graffiti a polar bear, before revealing it as stunt to draw attention to conservation attempts.

Paddy Power will also be donating £10,000 for every goal Russia scores at the World Cup in protest of the country's LGBT laws. It's one of the few broaching this subject although LGBT groups have also been protesting on the ground in the nation. After Russia's 5-0 demolition of Saudi Arabia in the first game of the tournament, Paddy Power will have to spring up a costly – but worthwhile – donation. The team's recent 3-1 demolition of Egypt meant the club has broke goals coring records for host nations - something the bookie may not have anticipated from one of the lowest ranked teams. Nonetheless Paul Mallon, head of major brand activations at Paddy Power claims bold stunts like that “gets us as a brand out of [the gambling] sector”.

Umbro also had a noteworthy campaign. Despite having 90 years' heritage in football, it now has a substantially smaller budget to play with than market leaders. So to make the most of its comparatively smaller budget, and stay in line with the tournament's severe regulations on ambush marketing, it enlisted YouTube musician Rob Madin to write an England anthem without mentioning the World Cup.

A spokesperson from the brand said the creative was “very down to earth” and celebrated all aspects of the game. It is not an A-list-crammed, flashy feature film that has “re-imagined advertising” like Adidas' work has in the words of that firm's vice president of brand communications, Ryan Morlan. To be fair Adidas' latest effort has accumulated 1.47m views.

Instead it has used humour to help it “cut through the huge amounts of noise created by other brands” with help from the creative team at Love. Without being able to mention specific players on nations, Madin ironically leaned on the very same vague football terms that many brands will sincerely plaster over their marketing materials for a sneaky sales uplift.

Umbro says: “Knowing our restrictions from the outset (slightly smaller pockets) we thought of a solution which we hoped would gain traction, simply by behaving differently.”

The work has boasted 65,000 views to date. England have two more games in the group stages to rally fans around the anthem again and again however.

Helene Hope, head of global brand marketing at Umbro, says: “Humour has always been central to our brand - Umbro has always had a lot of character - and of course, it's so integral to the world our football fans live in."

What to do?

Ross Arnold, director, marketing services at Wasserman, notes that there are more channels than ever before that non-sponsors can use to be heard.

“Brands who already have a rich heritage and footprint in football will opt to focus on flexing their current endorsement deals with footballers and national teams. Of course, they will need to be wary of the rules, but with clever marketing techniques and an authentic end product, it’s not just the big spending official sponsors who will be able to capitalise.

“What non-sponsor brands need to consider are the merits and pitfalls of trying to tap into a World Cup audience while not actually appearing to run a World Cup themed activation campaign.

“Another example has to be headphones brand Beats. Before the Brazil World Cup, it launched ‘The Game Before The Game’, a campaign focused on the pre-game rituals of football players, fans and celebrities around the world. By using existing global athlete partnerships, Beats managed to become part of the World Cup conversation without sponsoring or mentioning the tournament at all.”

And then there's the World Cup clash of giants: Nike and official tournament sponsor Adidas.

Adidas uses its status as the official partner of the World Cup to activate across all media channels as well as sponsoring the kits of 12 World Cup teams (Nike 11). Yet when it comes to consumer recognition, 52% of the UK believe Nike is the official World Cup sponsor.

In the two weeks leading up to the tournament, Sprinklr social listening noted that Nike had drummed up the most social mentions, 11.5k, against second place Adidas’ 10.9k. It is worth noting that Adidas’ #heretocreate was the second most popular hashtag with 3.8k mentions.

On the other hand, infographics firm Venngage commissioned an in-depth study exploring the Adidas vs Nike playing field. By its calculations, across sponsored team victory odds, social reach, best star players, and marketing effectiveness, Adidas will seize the day by the close of the tournament.


Leo Burnett’s Brandtasy League also has Adidas in the lead, ahead of Coca-Cola and Nike. It measures rank brands using sponsorship awareness, perceived fit, and affinity.

Criteo on the other hand has compared shirt sales in the UK. 55% are for Nike’s England predictably. Adidas only boasts a 27.19% share of the UK’s top sold shirts, showing that even as a tournament sponsor, it could still do better on the sales front in the UK at least. Even without England shirt sales in the UK, Nike is still winning the race.

Then there's YouGov and SMG Insight's figures. Charlie Dundas, commercial director of SMG Insight, said: “Nike historically out-performs Adidas on the public’s likelihood to purchase and that’s been no different in the run-up. Our data shows that Nike has enjoyed a bigger World Cup bump so far but it’s still early days. With Adidas as an official Fifa partner and supplying more kits than Nike, we’d expect to see Adidas reap the benefits soon – but ultimately it can boil down to which teams do well and which players break through.”

World Cup

Arnold says: “This isn’t to say that Adidas is getting it wrong. Far from it. But this does highlight how heavy investment in sponsorship may work for one brand and not the other, even when it could be argued that both brands are targeting the same audience.

“Brands that sponsor pay for the official status because of the credibility that comes with it. Clearly there’s a huge benefit, granting them official access to almost half the world's online population. While in contrast, the Nikes and Beats of the world are looking to capitalise by using the breadth of digital channels available to brands now that simply didn’t exist 20 years ago, when official sponsorship was one of only a few channels available to brands looking for their share of the World Cup conversation.”

With more than two thirds of the competition to go, and a tonne of metrics in which we can measure a definitive winner, we close on a question. Will the most memorable creative come from an official sponsor or a plucky guerrilla marketer? So far, the advantage lies with ambushers. Even if it is for the wrong reasons.

Advertising Sports Marketing Fifa World Cup

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