As Brazil struggles to get ready for the World Cup, which is set to kick off in less than two weeks, brands are facing their own challenges preparing to engage fans during what is expected to be the most talked about sporting event in history.
During the past week, many media outlets have questioned whether Brazil is ready for the event, with reports circulating about spoiled food at team hotels, unfinished stadiums, and mass protests against its $11.5 billion price tag – the most expensive World Cup ever. FIFA president Sepp Blatter and former soccer star Ronaldo, who played for Brazil, have criticized the country’s preparations.
Among Brazilians, support for hosting the event has dropped from 79% in 2008 to 48% last month, according to a poll by polling institute Datafolha. Thousands of Twitter users have employed the sarcastic hashtag #ImaginaNaCopa ("imagine during the World Cup") to voice their frustrations with organizers.
Such issues are "keeping marketers up at night," says Francisco Carvalho, president and CEO of Burson-Marsteller Brazil and Latin American leader of the agency’s sports-focused Fan Experience team.
"There is a sense of general frustration" in Brazil, and "many companies are scared of joining campaigns that relate to the World Cup due to this environment of uncertainty," Carvalho says, predicting that many corporations will "postpone investments until after the World Cup."
However, marketers are not abandoning the World Cup by any means. On the flip side, the tournament is a significant marketing opportunity because it attracts an impassioned global audience, says GolinHarris executive director Matthew Henson.
"There is an emotional bond to soccer that is quite unique to that sport and sacred to these audiences," he says. "They’re emotionally invested in the success of the country. They see these athletes as icons, and they’re very savvy about the game and want to control the conversation."
The World Cup also poses a challenge to marketers because it is a month-long event, versus one night for the Super Bowl or two weeks for the Olympics. As a result, brands must find a way to sustain engagement over a longer period of time amid heightened emotions, PR pros explain.
"When there is massive excitement and people very quickly move on to the next storyline, you need to have a sense of immediacy with your content and message," Henson explains.
That said, "consumers are inherently skeptical of brands trying to hijack events," he cautions. "Brands will be able to connect with consumers if they are careful not to exploit, and they deliver content that is timely and unique. Less is more."
After Oreo’s Dunk in the Dark tweet during Super Bowl XLVII, "everyone wants to jump on the real-time marketing bandwagon" during live sporting events, says Edison Lee, VP at Social@Ogilvy. Yet brands must be careful to avoid "blindly chasing the next trending topic on Twitter," he advises.
"That’s where mistakes happen," Lee explains. "If not done well or if tone-deaf, [real-time marketing] can hurt your brand exponentially in the same way it can improve your brand with a smartly planned-out piece of content."
To stand out during the World Cup, marketers should offer exclusive content to fans that they cannot find anywhere else, Lee says.
"You can’t just expect to put together a hashtag campaign and get people interested," he contends. "You need to give something to fans such as access to players or insight on statistics that they can’t readily get."
For example, Adidas, an official FIFA partner, will give fans inside access to places such as a pre-game huddle or team bus as part of its multiplatform All in or Nothing campaign, says senior PR manager Michael Ehrlich. After introducing a Twitter handle for the official game ball, which is named Brazuca, the brand also installed a camera in one of the balls and took it on a tour around the world. It plans to sustain conversation on social media throughout the month from the Adidas soccer Twitter handle and the Brazuca account by being "the most accessible brand," he says.
However, "with every large-scale global sporting event, whether it is the Olympics or the Super Bowl, there are always challenges and people who use it as a platform to voice issues and opinions on other topics," Ehrlich says. "But it’s the one event that brings everyone together, because soccer is such an important sport around the world."
Is an official World Cup sponsorship worth it?
FIFA’s six top-tier partners – Adidas, Coca-Cola, Emirates, Hyundai, Sony, and Visa – have paid a combined $177.13 million annually to the organization in the past three years, according to financial reports. The high price gives sponsors the rights to official World Cup branding, but companies unaffiliated with the event also have an opportunity to break through to fans.
Nike and other unaffiliated brands are leading online video shares prior to the World Cup, according to data from Unruly. In the case of Nike, the brand has an advantage because it is naturally aligned with the sport, having signed six of the 10 best-known soccer stars, compared with three for Adidas. Nike is also supplying kits for 10 teams, while nine teams will wear Adidas apparel. Adidas is also making the official game ball.
"The access and visibility you get as an official sponsor is significant, but more and more non-sponsors have the opportunity to challenge that notion," GolinHarris’ Henson says. "Social media has leveled the playing field for brands – regardless of sponsorship rights, a brand that has a meaningful and unique story with compelling content that fans want to share will be able to reach their audience effectively."