Brand America is real World Cup winner

Steve Barrett reflects on two weeks in Brazil and the impact on Brand America of the US population's enthusiastic embrace of the football World Cup.

Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

So the US’ brave World Cup bid is over, after a thrilling and ultimately fruitless match-up with Belgium ended in disappointment yesterday in the Brazilian city of Salvador.

The round of 16 game captured the imagination of the American public in a way never seen before, and led observers to suggest that football – we can call it football now can’t we? – is finally crossing the Rubicon into mainstream consciousness.

But, much more importantly in my view, America really joined the party and discovered the joys of a truly global competition. Over 154,000 tickets were purchased by Americans, resulting in the largest contingent of traveling supporters outside the host nation - 42 million fans from the US engaged with global football governing body FIFA's digital platforms, 13% of the population.

alternate textUS fans representing on the Copacabana

I was lucky enough to be in Brazil myself for the first two weeks of the tournament, and American fans were omnipresent at US matches, in fan zones on Copacabana Beach and beyond, at games not involving the US, and generally representing throughout the country.

And a Facebook analysis suggests the traveling fans are a brand owner’s dream: they are 68% male (which means of course nearly a third were female), and the most-represented age group is 25-34, at 39%. The top cities of origin are New York, LA, Miami, Houston, and Chicago.

I can’t think of a - non-military – scenario where that many Americans would congregate abroad for one single purpose. And, for a nation that is in some quarters considered insular and self-obsessed, it’s a real positive that the US was part of the league of nations that mingled on the Copacabana and Ipanema promenades in a global celebration not just of football, but also nationhood.

Fans from the 32 competing nations of all types, ranging from Algeria to Iran to Uruguay, proudly represented their countries but also mingled with each other and shared the common global love of football. They also shared their respective cultural norms and points of view. Of course, every country’s image carries its own baggage and preconceptions, but it’s an acceptable face of patriotism largely devoid of negativity.

In Belo Horizonte for the dead rubber match between England and Costa Rica – I won’t dwell on England’s World Cup performance here as it will only depress me – I found myself in a bar talking to an American fan who was nuts about England, an Iranian who shared a similar passion, the CEO of a Brazilian-based gold-mining company, and two Germans who also loved English football (but also weren’t averse to mocking my team’s abysmal display in Brazil.) There aren’t many occasions where this happy intermingling takes place.

alternate textEngland players sheepishly applaud their magnificent support

By the way, the last time England played in Belo Horizonte was in the 1950 World Cup, when they ignominiously lost 1-0 to… the United States! Unlike the blanket World Cup coverage in 2014, back then I don’t believe this major upset merited even a brief mention in the American media.

That World Cup was also notable as it was the only other time it has been held in Brazil, which lost in the final game to its neighbor Uruguay in front of over 200,000 fans in the Maracanã stadium in Rio, a perceived "disaster" that still affects the national psyche.

American fans followed their own team but also bought packages of tickets to matches in a lottery that could see them deployed anywhere in the country. I met many Americans in the Amazonian city of Manaus who were just pleased to be there and be a part of the tournament. They weren’t even sticking around for the US v Germany game in that city a week later.

This is all part of the global celebration that the World Cup represents, and it’s great that the world gets to see America taking part - and vice versa. It’s good for Brand America.

The World Cup reflected issues of reputation, branding, authenticity, marketing, and communications in so many other ways too. Every player, fan, coach, manager, brand, government, and organizing body said something about their respective reputation in the way they performed and behaved.

alternate textBrazilian fans welcomed World Cup visitors

The host country
Brazil is comprised of 200 million people who are absolutely crazy about football. It’s a national obsession. If you wander along Copacabana Beach you will see ordinary Brazilians of all ages from children to granddads playing keepy-uppy and futevol (a mixture of football and volleyball) at all hours to a standard that would embarrass the England team.

But with such passion and expectation comes immense pressure. The Brazilian team has underperformed so far, and the players seemed to be in tears or close to tears before, during, and after the round of 16 game against Chile last Saturday, which it sneaked through on penalties after coming within the width of a goalpost of going out. Heaven knows what would have happened if the team had been eliminated so early, but the consequences are going to be harsh if they do anything but win the whole thing.

Prior to the World Cup in Brazil there was much publicity about unfinished stadiums, social unrest about the cost of the tournament and lack of benefit to the general population, corruption, deaths among construction workers, and potential crime and violence in urban areas toward visitors.

alternate textFavela adjoining main drag in Rio a reminder of Brazil’s social inequality

Of course, none of these issues should be downplayed but, in truth, the stadiums were completed on time and were fine; the protests were limited due to the fact that the country got behind the team and thousands of police and military were brought in to keep a lid on the situation; and, while there were undoubtedly incidents, especially in major cities such as Rio and São Paolo, there was no more crime than you would encounter in any other major urban environment.

Most Brazilians were a delight to meet and eager to help their visitors, even to the extent of warning them to be careful in certain parts of town. If the national team doesn’t win the World Cup, then maybe that will change – but I prefer to think not.

Brand and national reputation
As all good communicators know, reputation is forged by all stakeholders in a brand or organization, and football teams are no different. The players, management, and fans are the brand representatives on and off the pitch.

Who can forget images such as the exuberant Mexican manager Miguel Herrera, the celebrating Colombian players led by new superstar James Rodriguez, US goalkeeper Tim Howard singlehandedly keeping his team in the game against Belgium, the young Brazilian mascots singing their national anthem with such gusto before the game with Chile I thought they were going to keel over, the Algerian players celebrating as if they’d won the World Cup when they qualified for the second stage, Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez sinking his teeth into Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini, and so on.

And compare the decision of the Greek players to donate their World Cup bonus to a new national training center for the cash-strapped country to the players of Ghana, who threatened to go on strike if their money was not delivered immediately, in cash, and had two of their number suspended for fighting.

The image of a Ghana player kissing the cash once it had arrived at the team hotel would probably not have enhanced the team’s brand reputation with fans back home, especially when they then proceeded to lose their next game with a whimper – with the cash-kisser scoring an own goal.

The Nigerian team performed better but also refused to practice until being paid in cash. And the Cameroon team was caught up in a match-fixing scandal after meekly losing 4-0 to Croatia in a group game before putting on a much more robust performance against hosts Brazil, including holding them to a draw at half time.

The US team’s image after the tournament will be defined by its stubborn refusal to accept defeat against a clearly superior Belgium in the second period of extra time when everyone assumed the tie was over – and its fans' enthusiastic embracing of the players no matter the result.

Having traveled all over Brazil to watch England’s three games in person, against Italy, Uruguay, and Costa Rica, I can tell you that the thousands of fans who did the same would have loved to see the same effort and commitment from our players as that displayed by Team USA.

That didn’t stop several thousand England supporters staying behind after the soporific 0-0 draw with Costa Rica to sing their hearts out and acclaim the team anyway. No wonder the England players and management looked embarrassed as they came over to the touchline to accept the applause.

England’s national identity is as inextricably linked with football as is Brazil’s, and our underperformance since our sole World Cup victory in 1966 hurts a lot. While our fans no longer rampage through cities and countries causing trouble at football matches, we are definitely difficult not to notice.

alternate textEach country’s fans reflected their unique national identity

England fans may have been confused when the local Brazilians in the newly constructed Arena da Amazônia in Manaus sided with the Italians in their first group match. But a little historical research shows it was an Englishman, Henry Wickham, who took 70,000 rubber-tree seeds out of Brazil in 1876, thus ending a 25-year near monopoly on the global supply of rubber that Manaus had enjoyed.

It also didn’t help that England manager Roy Hodgson had stated before the tournament draw that no one would want to be going to Manaus for its group fixtures. When a game in 85 degree heat and 70 per cent humidity is heading into its final 15 minutes and the players need every piece of encouragement they can get, it doesn’t help that the locals are rooting strongly for the opposition. At heart, this is all about smart communications and building a positive brand image and reputation.

Nowadays there is more of an attitude of self-deprecation amongst the defiance, with chants including "England’s going home", "[England manager] Roy Hodgson is taking us to Heathrow", and "Luis Suarez, his teeth are offside" mixed in with more traditional songs about "past glories" concerning the Second World War, the IRA, and the Falkland Islands.

England fans also co-opted The Beatles’ Hey Jude as an anthem ("Na, na, na, na, na, na, na; na, na, na, na, England"), maybe to remind people that, while we suck at the sport we "gave the world," we still have the best tunes.

In time, I’m sure the US fans will extend their songbook beyond "U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A" and "I believe that we will win" to encompass a more nuanced world view, but you will need to experience decades of hurt and heartbreak on the football field before you can really appreciate the pain of long-term support of your national team.

alternate textPhoto: FIFA

Marketing and commerce
The commercial value of the World Cup to organizing body FIFA alone in 2014 was over $4 billion, comprised of TV rights and marketing revenue. Big brands, whether official sponsors or not, rushed to associate themselves with The Greatest Show on Earth, as Budweiser dubbed it.

Real-time marketing was a ubiquitous presence, as brands sought to capitalize on incidents such as Suarez’s bite (Cinnamon Toast, Snickers) and the US matchup with Belgium (Waffle House, Coors Light, Chobani.)

I’m not sure what it is about airlines, but there were just a couple of real-time marketing faux pas, including Dutch carrier KLM’s unfortunate "adios amigos" tweet following Mexico’s defeat by the Netherlands, and Delta’s use of a giraffe to represent Ghana following its match with the US - despite the fact there are no such animals present in the West African country.

These were both salient reminders not to sacrifice due diligence in the pursuit of speedy response in real-time marketing executions, but the sense is that marketers are honing their skills in this area and gradually learning how best to take advantage of such opportunities.

Brand America
Now the US team has been eliminated from the World Cup comes the acid test as to whether the last two weeks have represented a quadrennial bump in interest in football that will rapidly recede, or whether the sport has really entered the national consciousness and is here to stay.

The MLS franchises being set up by David Beckham in Florida and the joint venture between the New York Yankees and English Premier League champions Manchester City will help build the credibility of football in the US, and that is crucial to the development, reputation, and brand image of the sport.

The first two weeks of the World Cup are always the most enjoyable for me anyway, whether your team survives to the knockout stages or not. That’s the time when football is on our screens every day and all of the 32 teams harbor hopes of progressing in the tournament.

It’s the time when the festival of football feel of the World Cup is at its height, and it was the time when Brand America played more than its equal part in the global celebration of sport, nationhood, and coming together with your compatriots and new friends from around the world in a common cause.

Long may the new US love affair with football continue and I look forward to the brand story going from strength to strength in Russia in 2018.

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