Advertising Sports Marketing Fifa World Cup

The 9 best marketing ambushes at the 2018 World Cup


By John McCarthy, Opinion Editor

June 29, 2018 | 13 min read

Many brands don't want to put in the dime to sponsor the Fifa World Cup but they still want the sales uplift that the association with the spectacle may bring.

World Cup

World Cup sponsors upstaged by ambush brands

Fifa claims it will attract 3.2bn viewers during the competition, but a £100m-a-year partnership fee is too expensive for many brands to go down the official sponsor route. Instead, some will sponsor a nation, take on a media partner or adopt a stealthier approach and ambush the tournament.

On the appeal of the World Cup to brands, Chris Curtin, chief brand and innovation marketing officer at Visa, said the World Cup is one of the “last unchallenged bastions of appointment viewing”. Similarly, Roel de Vries, vice president and global head of marketing, comms and brand strategy at Champions League sponsor Nissan, said: "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."

Former Paddy Power head of mischief, Ken Robertson, joked that CMOs spending up to £100m on a top level football sponsorship “should be shot”. Meanwhile, Kenny McCallum, general manager of global football at New Balance, added: “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."

Irrespective of who is right on the subject, here are some of The Drum's favourite guerilla marketing efforts of the World Cup so far in no particular order.

1: Caltex (CahillTex)

​Australian petrol company Caltex got behind its national team and veteran footballer Tim Cahill by rebranding as CahillTex and updating numerous stations to reflect this.

Brought to life by TLA Worldwide, The Zoo Republic and Dashing, the stations will keep the name from May through June. Partnered with the national side, the Socceroos, the brand is also selling petrol station onesies.

Of course, a conspiracy theory emerged, claiming that Cahill's commercial ties were the reason the 38-year-old, who has had little game time this season, was brought to Russia.

He didn't bring them much luck, anyway, as the Socceroos are now out of the tournament after a valiant run.

2: ​​Three UK

Three Lions

Here we have another store-front rebrand. This time from mobile carrier Three in the UK. It subtly tied into the England team without splurging on a partnership.

Working with W Comms, the mobile carrier erected three lion emojis on its storefront. This brought it into line with the famed national side nickname, the Three Lions.

The move was activated with a store opening by England legends Teddy Sheringham, Tony Adams, Ray Parlour and John Barnes. Fans reportedly queued to take selfies with the players and attempt the challenge called the #ThreeWallBall.

3: Ikea


Ikea acknowledged that the World Cup can completely divide the living room and developed a set of couches to reflect this.

The Dekajtig couch allows a household occupant to turn their back on the TV, whereas the Vallentuna sofa can separate to accommodate opposing factions.

AdAge reports that the ads were developed by Sweden's Akestam Holst – an agency that will be upset its fellow countrymen were recently knocked out by some clinical Germans.

4: Carlsberg

Danish beer brand Carlsberg looked to win over fans in Europe and especially Russia by creating beer with the texture of caviar.

CP+B Copenhagen hatched the plan and developed the luxury brew with help from food experts in Denmark. Beer with the texture of the coveted fish eggs was created to dish out to football fans keen for a taste of Russia and Danish culture.

5: Umbro

Mixing music and football is risky business however Umbro did it with a wink to its audience.

With help from agency LOVE, the sports apparel brand created an English football anthem without mentioning the tournament, teams, players or any trademarks once. YouTube musician Brett Domino helped bring the idea to life.

The efforts were cut up fort Umbro's social channels on #EnglandAnthem.

6: Wish

Know how the top players are spending their down-time? Shopping and one-upmanship apparently, as Pogba, Bale, Neymar and more all pitched in to create some sleek sponsored videos to promote ecommerce app Wish.

The brand partnered with top players, especially those not at the tournament, to drive traffic to its app without particularly leaning on the allure of the World Cup.

The work was heavily seeded on paid social media. Welshman Bale, one of the best players not attending the tournament, apparently learned how to become a master barber.

Included in the campaign were Tim Howard (USA), Bale (Wales), Robin Van Persie (Holland), Claudio Bravo (Chile) and Gianluigi Buffon (Italy), in addition to Neymar (Brazil) and Paul Pogba (France) who are both playing in the tournament.

7: UberEats

​UberEats elected to run a similar global campaign. It leaned on playmaker Pirlo who is distraught at the absence of Italy. In response he picked a new national team to support.

The work from Pitch helped underline that UberEats delivers McDonald's produce now, and saw the Italian try to cheer for a few sides at the tournament.

It is running globally and looks to boost football fan engagement in key international markets.

8: Domino's

Pizza delivery brand Domino's used the World Cup to forward its 'The Official Food of' campaign. This time England veteran Jimmy Bullard leads a sad series of idents about staying at home during the tournament.

Never capped at a major tournament, Bullard playfully mocks never making it on the biggest stage by hoovering, playing late-night table football and doing a bit of DIY while the Three Lions give it their best shot in Russia.

Tony Holdway, sales and marketing director at Domino’s Pizza Group, said: “Who better to represent the true spirit of watching the football from the comfort of your own home, than with Jimmy Bullard, one of the best players to never play for England. What Jimmy lacks in national team caps he more than makes up for in his ability to deliver deadpan lines to camera and laugh at himself in the process.

9: Paddy Power

Irish bookmaker Paddy Power makes it its business to stand out at any sporting event, and this year it excelled itself with a polar bear stunt and its support of LGBT causes – to troll Russia.

First, it leaked supposedly ‘live’ footage of a Russian polar bear being emblazoned with an England flag. It also announced the move with a full-on newspaper wrap in The Metro. The ad read England ‘til I dye.

Outraged feedback propagated for two days until Paddy Power again took over the Metro newspaper to reveal that the stunt was in fact orchestrated to draw attention to the plight of the polar bear in the Russian Arctic.

Not content with riling just one nation, Paddy Power also mocked Russian LGBT propaganda laws by donating £10K to charity for each goal scored by the nation in support of Attitude magazine‘s Foundation.

The Failures

Ambush marketing is a risky proposition and brands are always at risk of scoring an own goal. Here are some campaigns that did not quite pan out.

Burger King

Burger King Russia

Burger King Russia walked back a lewd social media campaign that urged Russian mummies to copulate with, and get impregnated by, World Cup footballers as a means of integrating ball skills into the national gene pool.

The eugenics reference, paired with the degrading view of women and pregnancy, was promoted with the promise of a lifetime of Whoppers and a cash prize.

The idea was quickly sin binned and deleted.



Mastercard scored one of the biggest own goals of the tournament by ‘gamifying’ world hunger, leveraging its player ambassadors Neymar and Messi. For every goal they scored it said it would provide 10,000 meals to starving children.

So far, they've scored much fewer goals than experts would have predicted meaning that the campaign would have fallen flat even if it hadn't already angered the public.

Football writer Henry Winter and former England striker Ian Wright were among those who criticised the gesture.

Some wondered why Mastercard didn't just feed the hungry children anyway. Official World Cup sponsor Visa would have been watching this implosion closely.



German airline Lufthansa had to apologise for filming its World Cup promotion in Ukraine, Kiev, instead of Moscow. The ad showed two enthusiastic German fans trying to make the most of their time in 'Moscow'.

Relations between the countries are at an all-time low after Russian president Vladimir Putin recently said there are “no conditions” that would see occupied Crimea returned to Ukraine, fanning the controversy.

The airline said the ad was shot in Kiev for “logistical reasons”.

Lessons from the past

Some ambush cases studies from previous tournaments are worth revisiting.

The 2014 Suarez bite

At the Brazil World Cup, when Uruguayan forward Luis Suarez bit into an Italian defender, brands had a clear magical moment they could integrate without using the tournament IP. The Adidas athlete was passionately mocked for his foul play.


Furthermore, a series of Adidas ads where the star bares his teeth became the competition's hottest experiential marketing spot. Fans would line up for a bite selfie before the apparel brand took down the buy.

Suarez Adidas

Paddy Power

The Irish bookmaker has made a name for itself being mischievous, loud, even crass at times. Four years ago in Brazil, it 'shaved' the rainforest to offer support to England.

The prank was revealed as a campaign to raise awareness of deforestation - but first the bookie was dragged through the mud by those shocked at the stunt.


Beats found a way to tie into the 2014 (and 2018) tournaments by focusing on the pre-match music routines of the players in the campaign the Game Before The Game.

To the casual observer, Neymar was warming up before the World Cup. Of course, there is not a Brazil jersey or Fifa branding in sight in this clever and powerful campaign.


At some point in its long and illustrious history, someone working with Volkswagen realised Goaaaaaaal is phonetically similar to Gooooooolllll-f.

As a result, with minimal effort the brand leveraged social, Oreo Dunk In The Dark style to get people thinking about its Golf hatchbacks in 2014.


This Dutch beer brand's 2010 ambush in South Africa resulted in arrests.

36 Dutch female fans dressed in short orange dresses laden with Bavaria branding were accused by World Cup officials of promoting the lager brewer at the Holland-Denmark game.

Two Dutch women were imprisoned and released on bail. The 36 orange-clad women were ejected from Soccer City - but not before the brand got noticed.


​And finally, German airline Lufthansa wanted fans, in particular bitter rivals the English, to feel comfortable travelling on the German airline with this fun ad.

But also to solidify its place as the airline of fans, it rebranded planes to read Fanhansa for a funny ad campaign.

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