Technology, Branding, and the Battle for Engagement at the World Cup 2018

Jul 05, 2018

Here in the UK, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the FIFA World Cup in Russia is in full swing. Even those who aren’t ordinarily soccer fans have an opinion on the prospects of Uruguay, Sweden, or South Korea. The excitement around England’s performance mounted as team captain and star striker Harry Kane netted five goals in two games to lead the team into the knock out stage of the tournament, while Germany fans have been stunned to see their team crash out early.  

Like any sports tournament, the World Cup has launched a host of technology innovation, the most hotly debated is the first deployment of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) designed to correct “clear and obvious” refereeing errors.

Less talked about in the pub, but arguably just as impactful for the outcome of individual games, is the use for the first time of in-game Electronic Performance and Tracking Systems (EPTS). EPTS deploys camera-based systems and wearable technology to generate player statistics and video footage, which is fed to tablets used by team analysts, coaching, and medical staff while matches are in progress.

So in-game innovation abounds, but is innovation similarly transforming marketing and brand activity around the tournament?

Soccer is incontrovertibly the most popular sport in the world. And it has been incredibly successful in penetrating diverse cultures. According to Nielsen Sports, China, and India – neither traditional footballing nations – are home to enormous numbers of football fans. Nielsen estimates that China alone has 187 million fans interested in the sport – more than the 131 million found in Germany, the U.K, France, Italy, and Spain combined.

No surprise then that high-level sponsorship at the World Cup has traditionally been the domain of international mega brands, with the likes of Coca-Cola and Adidas featuring as one of FIFA’s seven top tier “Global Partners.”

But it’s not just the global giants seeking to take advantage of football fever and win the battle for engagement. Content strategy linked to, or inspired by, the tournament is being used effectively by brands of all types. Apple’s Beats by Dre division is promoting its new “Decades” collection with a short film directed by Guy Ritchie. The four-minute film focuses on the story of a young Russian footballer who is dealing with bullying, and then tells the origin stories of established football greats including Harry Kane and Brazil’s Neymar, using humor, and emotional engagement to augment the brand’s “Made defiant” campaign.

Extensive cross-platform campaigns continue to attract attention. Budget supermarket Lidl already has a three-year partnership with the England team and sponsors a grassroots initiative called “FA Lidl Skills” which provides opportunities for children to play football. Lidl’s “Dream Big” World Cup campaign is running across cinema, radio, social media, online, broadcast video on demand, and in key London railway stations and includes ads which show young footballers “helping” England stars Gary Cahill, Raheem Sterling, and Kyle Walker to perfect their goal celebrations and hone their pre-match preparation.

Sterling and Walker are two of the stars of England’s young team – with an average age of just 26, they are the youngest and least experienced of any team in the World Cup. They are emphatically post-millennial in outlook, comfortable sharing their activities on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It’s been estimated that captain Harry Kane has more than 8 million social media followers, with other England players not far behind. But the undisputed king of social is Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, with over 322 million followers across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, according to Nielsen Sports. No wonder brands are eager to link themselves with the stardust of these global superstars and their mega audiences.

But it’s not all about fun and frivolity. More serious issues-based campaigns, too, have used the World Cup to promote engagement and raise awareness amongst hard-to-reach groups. In the UK, supermarket Tesco’s F&F clothing brand has allied with mental health charity CALM to raise awareness of men’s mental health issues, in a campaign called #MarkYourMan. Running across social media and print with retail tie-ins in Tesco stores to raise money for the charity, the campaign highlights the contrast between the emotion that men are able to show in the football stadium compared to everyday life and encourages people to support male friends and relatives who are encountering mental health problems.

And in a reaction to Russia’s anti-LGBT policies, bookmaker Paddy Power has launched a “Rainbow Russia” campaign, backed by LGBT sportspeople including Caitlyn Jenner and rugby player Gareth Thomas, which pledges to donate £10,000 to LGBT charities for every goal scored by the host nation.

I can’t predict which team will lift the trophy aloft at the final match on 15 July. But it’s certain that soccer-related content initiatives will continue to wage a fierce battle for the attention of an unrivaled and passionate global audience.

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