It’s no secret that huge sporting events offer massive opportunities for brands, whether they’re acting as official sponsors or finding other, less official ways to get in on the action and tap into the excitement and anticipation of millions of fans.
And they don’t come much bigger than the FIFA World Cup — the world’s most watched sporting event — which can draw audiences in the billions! Of course, that’s a global, multi-lingual audience spanning numerous markets, but it’s safe to say that in many countries, the World Cup will likely be the only thing that people will be talking about — especially if their team is doing well!
So what’s the fuss all about? Each year, 32 teams representing nations from across the globe battle it out in 64 matches over the course of 29 days — first in group stages before progressing to a knock-out style tournament. The final, which will be held on December 18th, will likely draw a huge audience.
Indeed, the final of the 2018 World Cup, which saw France defeat Croatia 4 - 2, captured an audience of 516.6 million viewers — although at least 1.12 billion people tuned in for at least one minute of the match.
In most markets across the world, the FIFA World Cup will be an important fixture around which branding opportunities and advertising campaigns will be crafted. Even in the US, where soccer is something of an underdog that sits in the shadow of “football”, basketball, and baseball, the tournament’s final match can still grab a lot of eyeballs. During the last World Cup back in 2018, approximately 11.4 million tuned in — a figure that was smashed by the 2019 Women’s World Cup which won 14.3 million US viewers.
So, it’s safe to say the stakes are high and brands that can translate the passion and dedication wrapped up in this insanely popular international tournament can win big — whether they’re targeting an international audience or focusing on domestic viewers.
But the 2022 FIFA World Cup is no ordinary installment — taking place in Qatar, it has faced boycotts and suffered a host of controversies, which could not only risk the health of sponsoring brands but could damage the reputation of the tournament itself.
If you’re new to all this, you’ll be forgiven for finding it all a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry! It might be one of the biggest events in the world of branding, but we’re going to break it down into bite-sized chunks — explaining why this year’s installment is wrapped up in controversy and the history of the tournament from a branding perspective. We’ll also take a closer look at the branding opportunities available, for companies, countries, and of course, FIFA.
Why is FIFA World Cup 2022 Controversial?
The main reasons that this year’s FIFA World Cup is surrounded by controversy mainly stem from the choice of host, Qatar. Though it will represent the first time the tournament has ever been held in a country within the so-called “Arab World”, it’s believed by many that the lofty aim of spreading the culture of soccer to new markets is not entirely sincere.
Indeed, there have been allegations that soccer’s biggest event is being used to “sports wash” the country and its reputation, and the legitimacy of its selection has also been called into question — although, it must be added that no actual evidence of corruption has been found and a two-year inquiry by FIFA’s ethics committee “found no significant concerns.”
We’ll run through the main points of contention:
1. Qatar’s Treatment of Migrant Workers & Allegations of Slavery
Like the United Arab Emirates further south along the gulf coast, Qatar is a nation where migrant workers vastly outnumber citizens and, as in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, many of these migrant workers have been employed in large-scale construction projects.
It’s not unusual for a host nation to embark on a spree of development as it prepares to show itself off under international attention and Qatar has been no exception. The Guardian reports: “In addition to seven new stadiums, dozens of major projects have been completed or are under way, including a new airport, roads, public transport systems, hotels and a new city, which will host the World Cup final.”
But many commentators have called attention to the conditions under which these migrant workers must toil — particularly the desert heat, which could be the cause of hundreds of deaths per year. Indeed, between December 2010 — when Qatar won in its bid to host the 2022 competition — and 2021, 6500 migrant workers have lost their lives.
For some migrant workers, their freedom to simply walk away from these conditions and return home is being denied. An investigation by The Guardian in 2013 found that many Nepalese workers faced a combination of debt, “non-payment of wages, confiscation of documents” and an inability to leave their place of work, all of which constituted forced labor — “a form of modern-day slavery,”
While some have argued that international pressure has since led to positive labor reforms, these scandals have left a mark on the tournament’s reputation that it has struggled to recover from.
2. LGBTQIA+ Rights
The choice of Qatar as the host country for the world cup — a country where homosexuality is illegal — has also drawn criticism from all quarters and given rise to legitimate fears for the safety of fans and players during their visit to the gulf state.
The president of FIFA at the time, Sepp Blatter, provoked calls for his resignation in 2011 when responding to a question on the issue. His response, a bad-taste joke, suggested that gay football fans “refrain from any sexual activities.” Following his joke’s controversy, Blatter clarified “we don't want racism, we don't want any discrimination. What we want to do is open this game to everybody, and to open it to all cultures, and this is what we are doing in 2022."
The state has made some gestures of tolerance, such as allowing rainbow flags to be flown within its stadiums, and high profile figures such as the chief executive of England’s Football Association have attempted to reassure fans that they “will not face arrest for holding hands or kissing in public at the World Cup in Qatar”. But, under the shadow of potential arrest, concerns over the safety of LGBTQIA+ fans traveling to Qatar, understandably remain.
Whether, the hot, desert climate is suitable for such a large-scale sporting event is another objection that has been made by many commentators. Indeed, there have been genuine concerns that the heat could have potentially harmful effects on players’ performance as well as the thousands of fans packed into stadiums.
To accommodate Qatar’s climate, all eight of the stadiums being used for the event will be air-conditioned. In addition to this, the tournament’s traditional summer schedule has actually been moved to winter to take advantage of cooler temperatures — however, this has, in turn, had a disruptive effect on many domestic football leagues which typically play between late summer and spring.
Given all of the above issues, it’s no surprise that some commentators questioned whether Qatar’s triumph over rival bids to host the tournament was fair. Although “there is no chain of evidence linking Qatar itself to any kind of corruption in securing its World Cup bid success.”
However, the fact that “16 of 22 voting exco members” present at the time of Qatar’s triumph “have been implicated in or investigated over some form of alleged corruption or bad practice” has certainly painted the tournament in an unsavory light.
Now that we have the tournament’s many controversies out of the way, let’s take a quick tour through the history of the World Cup — as seen through the lens of brands!
A Branding History Of The FIFA World Cup
When the World Cup was first held in Uruguay in 1930, the world was very a different place. Though the Olympics had long made partnerships with a variety of brands, the first World Cup tournament appears to have been a rather muted affair — at least when it came to branding opportunities. Indeed, FIFA rules at the time dictated that even the ball “could not be visibly branded”.
Of course, as successive World Cups were held and the development of mass media brought the games to more and more listeners and then viewers — brands slowly began to understand the huge impact that could be made for those that stood out and caught consumers’ attention.
Coca-Cola caught on in the 1950s, investing in stadium advertising for every tournament ever since. And In 1974, it entered into a formal association and continues to be a close partner of the games.
But let’s take a look at some standout campaigns that brands have executed, once they caught on to the massive potential of the World Cup.
1. Puma Pounces On The Potential Of Star Power
Obviously, it was sports brands that first capitalized on the World Cup to develop desired brand associations and increase awareness. German sports apparel brand, PUMA, has, on more than one occasion, used the tournament to play out highly inventive, headline-catching campaigns.
The first came in the 1970 tournament in Mexico, when during the final — just before the start of the match — “Brazilian star player Pelé stood on the midfield and requested the referee to pause the game for a minute to tie his laces.” For 42 seconds, the superstar took his time tying his laces, and eyes — and cameras — of the world were fixated on his shoes as he did — a pair of PUMAs.
The whole thing was a marketing tactic, a free 42-second commercial right before the game began, arguably one of the world’s “first viral promotional sports marketing campaigns.”
PUMA didn’t stop there, 4 years later at the 1974 World Cup held in West Germany, another star player, Johan Cruyff, became the backbone of a clever campaign. “Cruyff had an exclusive personal deal with PUMA”, but his country had made a separate branding partnership with rivals Adidas.
Ever loyal to his brand PUMA, Cruyff refused to wear the Adidas branded kit, arguing that “despite the fact that the kit may belong to the Dutch FA, the head sticking out of it is mine”. Eventually, it was agreed that Cruyff could remove one of the three iconic Adidas stripes from his kit to make it “commercially neutral”.
PUMA, of course, spun this into a yarn, pushing the tale of “the rebel brand and the rebel player” who “ripped off one stripe from his kit because of his distaste of Adidas.” Partnering with celebrity advocates doesn’t come better than this — on the world’s stage, their superstar player had publicly shunned their biggest rivals, before going on to win football’s biggest award for individual players, the Ballon d’Or, for a third time.
2. Nations Embrace The Power Of Sports Branding
There’s a lot of skepticism over whether hosting major international sporting events like the World Cup has a net positive impact on host nations’ economies or ultimately costs much more than the accumulated value of the tourism and investment they attract. Regardless, sports associations the world over fervently bid to host large-scale events — and politicians often shout loudly about the positive effects, jobs, and investment opportunities that these events can bring.
What cannot be denied is that, under the gaze of international media, nations have a unique opportunity to project the desired image of their country and culture to the rest of the world. It is believed by some analysts that improving perceptions could have indirect effects on investment and tourism, so it’s no surprise that host nations reach for branding tools to achieve these goals.
By the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, host nations were comfortable adopting visual identities, official mottos and songs, non-sporting sponsors (in this case, Bata shoes), and of course mascots.
Pique, a green Jalapeño wearing a sombrero, is sometimes cited as the best-world cup mascot in history. The tournament also boasted a poster campaign that featured photography of the country’s “pre-Columbian heritage” and a completely unique ball — the Azteca — marking the first time that the tournament’s ball would include designs inspired by the host nation.
The USA’s own hosting of the tournament in 1994 saw a star-studded opening ceremony held at Chicago’s Soldier Field, while South Africa’s turn would forever be remembered for the deafening buzz of its vuvuzelas. With each successive World Cup, host nations would continue to embrace the chance to showcase homegrown culture, art, and music — making it an integral part of the coverage and experience of the tournament.
3. TV Advertising and The World Cup
The growing profile of the World Cup eventually predicated dedicated campaigns from brands in an attempt to leverage fans’ engagement and direct it toward their products or services. Over the years, brands have utilized a range of different tactics in creating their “World Cup” campaigns — from stone-faced seriousness to humor to taking inspiration from the culture of the host nation.
McDonald’s 1994 British campaign for the USA World Cup smartly focused on its takeaway option, tying it in with the World Cup fever that afflicts so many viewers.
On the topic of afflictions, Adidas’ campaign for the 2002 World Cup in South Korea and Japan also focused on the levels of obsession that hit both fans and players during the tournament with their “Footballitis” ad.
For that same World Cup, Pepsi took inspiration from the tournament’s Japanese hosts with an ad that depicted a faceoff between football’s biggest stars at the time and a team of Sumo Wrestlers.
Finally, there’s the epic 2014 commercial for Beats, which highlights a very important lesson to be learned — you don’t have to be an official partner to leverage engagement surrounding the World Cup. Both Beats and Pepsi, neither of which were official partners, demonstrated that by carefully negotiating around licensed imagery and making partnerships with individual sports stars, it’s entirely possible to outcompete those who’ve paid for the right to use the FIFA logo in their ads.
In fact, a study that year found that of the five top brands associated with the 2014 FIFA World Cup, only one of them was an official partner, Continental Tires. Beats, KFC, Nike, and Bridgestone all “ambushed” an official sponsor and won a stronger association than those that paid for it.
The Key Rewards — And Risks — Of A 2022 World Cup Campaign
3 Potential Rewards
1. Leverage Engagement
It should go without saying that an ad campaign that airs in the run-up to or during coverage of the World Cup will receive a lot of engagement — though this will vary depending on the market in question.
In soccer-obsessed countries like the UK, Italy, Germany, and Brazil (to name but a few), the World Cup represents a valuable moment to connect with consumers. While US audience numbers are growing, they still pale in comparison to events like the Superbowl.
If you can’t afford to be there at the heart of the action, remember that this event will be front of mind for millions of fans worldwide. So, if you can tie your brand message into the ups and downs of a game of soccer, work with a well-known player, or take inspiration from the host nation’s culture, you’ll likely find your message breaking through the noise.
Although, given the controversies surrounding Qatar, it would not be surprising to find most brands steering clear of mentioning the hosts at all. Coca-Cola’s recently released commercial opts for a placeless locale rather than being clearly set in Qatar.
Of course, it's also possible to stand in vocal opposition to the tournament, like Brewdog did with their loud and controversial "anti-sponsor" campaign. You can read more about that campaign here.
2. Tell a Brand Story
The World Cup is a great opportunity to tell a brand story that lasts longer than a single commercial — especially for official partners that can follow viewers every step of the way, building up towards the opening match and accompanying fans to the final.
There are big opportunities here for brands to invest in local communities, fund initiatives, or work with charities — which could leave a larger and most lasting impression on local consumers, while also offering brands a chance to tell real stories that can effectively engage consumers on an emotional level. Here’s an example from Coca-Cola’s 2014 World Cup campaign promoting the “The FIFA World Cup™ Trophy Tour by Coca-Cola”.
3. Reach a New Market
If you’re planning on expanding into new markets and speaking to new consumers, then a big event like the World Cup could be a great opportunity to get your launch started with a splash.
Official partners will benefit from stadium branding and other OOH opportunities that could allow your brand to take on a strong physical presence and effectively announce its arrival. With the World Cup 2022 being the first in the Arab World, there’s an opportunity for brands to leverage the excitement surrounding this moment in history and speak to consumers from across the region.
2 Potential Risks
1. The Risk to Brand Safety
Brand safety refers to the measures used to ensure that a brand’s reputation is not damaged when advertising — and there are myriad ways that this can happen.
Typically it’s related to cases of a brand appearing in places that are at odds with its values — for example on a website that spreads misinformation or distributes controversial content. But your brand can also be at risk when displayed next to content that might inadvertently paint your service or offering in a bad light. Think about an airline ad placed next to news about a plane crash!
Having already covered the many controversies surrounding the 2022 Qatar World Cup, it should be clear that the event has the potential to damage any brand that is closely associated with it. If, for example, any of the issues we’ve already covered steal the limelight from the soccer being played on the pitch, there’s a risk that sponsoring brands may be perceived as being complicit.
It presents a unique challenge for brand managers and may explain why campaigns for the 2022 tournament have attempted to focus their narratives on more universal themes. Indeed, a similar scenario played out before the 2018 Russia World Cup.
Not only did brands use much less of the host’s identity to flavor their creatives but brands were “reluctant to sound the whistle on their campaigns” and waited just weeks before it began to get started. In comparison, the run-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil saw brands “touting their campaigns months in advance” while leaning heavily into the country’s soccer-obsessed culture.
2. The Risks of Ambush Marketing
Finally, it bears repeating that ambush marketing presents a few unique risks of its own. For official partners, there is the aforementioned possibility that despite paying for the right to bear the FIFA World Cup Logo and advertise within stadiums and in other exclusive spaces, rival brands may still outperform yours — so long as they do so in a way that doesn’t break the law.
Indeed, for those brands that are tempted to chance it with an ambush marketing campaign of their own, remember that you’d be undermining one of FIFA’s biggest sources of revenue and the organization won’t hesitate to go on the offensive and have your campaign taken down if it falls foul of rules designed to protect brands that have paid to be official sponsors.
During the 2010 FIFA World Cup, Bavaria Beer snuck Dutch models into the Netherlands' first game against Denmark, wearing dresses supplied to them by the brewery in a stunt that ended with arrests and a criminal investigation.
The key here is to bend the rules rather than actually break them!
There’s no doubt that there are huge opportunities to be had for those brands that can successfully engage with soccer-obsessed fans during the World Cup. With the tournament’s latest hosts surrounded by controversy, the potential rewards are paired with unique risks — but rather than back out altogether, it’s still possible for brands to run successful campaigns on their own terms.
FIFAs brand has already been severely damaged — with various corruption scandals since 2010 sinking its reputation with consumers. The fact that brands like Nike and McDonald’s also saw their reputation damaged by their association with FIFA should act as a cautionary tale as we head into this latest World Cup.
But it appears to be a lesson that brands are taking heed of. FIFA has struggled to attract official partners for this tournament, with many, no doubt cautious of being too closely associated with an event that could still deliver more controversy.
Whether your brand opts to boycott the event altogether or seeks to build an ad campaign built around universal themes that focus on the many positive effects that sports can deliver — it’s safe to say that Qatar’s 2022 World Cup will be an event that is certainly worth keeping an eye on.