How 5 underdog brands are scoring at the World Cup without an official sponsorship

Including one clothing brand that stepped away from its most prominent team sponsorship years ago.

In a tournament that will be remembered for its upsets -- host nation Russia’s shootout defeat of Spain! Croatia’s improbable run to the finals this Sunday against France! -- underdog teams at the FIFA World Cup weren’t the only ones with inspired game.

Underdog brands also brought their A-games, according to sports PR pros.

These brands are not official World Cup sponsors, and compared with the big boys in Russia, they’re mostly working with modest budgets. They also faced a unique challenge with the 2018 World Cup: for the first time in more than three decades, the U.S. Men’s National Team failed to quality for the event.

"For U.S.-based brands, brands for which the U.S. is a major target market, and USMNT official sponsor brands, it requires a significant pivot in strategy," says Joe Flores, EVP at MWWPR and co-leader of the firm’s sports and entertainment practice.

One brand that successfully turned that challenge into an opportunity was DNA testing company 23andMe, he contends.

23andMe teamed with Fox Sports, a World Cup broadcast partner, on a campaign called Root for Your Roots. It positioned 23andMe ancestry-testing kits as a solution for fans searching for a team to support given the absence of the U.S. squad.

"The result," says Flores, "was a strong way to authentically underscore its key value proposition in an organic, practical, and meaningful way."

The push included TV personalities of Fox Sports and their affiliates taking 23andMe’s ancestry DNA kits, a YouTube video, earned media outreach, and a social media campaign encouraging people to reveal their ancestry.

Although still measuring the impact of the effort, the brand has seen "a significant increase in brand awareness and double the engagement on social media than we normally would," according to Tracy Keim, 23andMe’s VP of consumer marketing and brand.

"Even if we didn’t have as big of a splash as had we been a World Cup sponsor, we still felt really good about being relevant and part of the conversation around the World Cup," says Keim.

Flores says a "bold" campaign from Wells Fargo, a sponsor of the USMNT, but not the World Cup, also scored. It featured former USMNT captain Landon Donovan offering his support to the Mexican national team with the U.S. out, despite the American and Mexican teams being fierce rivals. On Twitter, where Donovan has 1.4 million followers, the soccer star was pictured holding a scarf reading, "My other team is Mexico."

Not everyone was a fan of the campaign, considering the abuse Donovan has received at the hands of the Mexican fans. Yet Flores says that "the polarizing campaign drew mixed reviews and required Donovan to clarify his position, it sparked significant earned media and social dialogue for Wells Fargo."

Shawn McBride. EVP for sports at Ketchum Sports & Entertainment, also likes the Wells Fargo effort, and says many people do not know Donovan grew up playing with Mexican and Mexican-American teammates near Los Angeles.

"Wells Fargo went for an angle that they knew would create some friction and buzz, and it achieved that and helped them to stand out as a non-sponsor," says McBride. "They also clearly had a gameplan after the fact to address some of the negative feedback they received. The message was that while the U.S. and Mexico can be rivals on the pitch, they don’t have to be elsewhere."

Donovan explained his upbringing on social media and in interviews with ESPN and other media. McBride also notes the soccer organizations of the U.S. and Mexico, along with Canada, came together for a successful joint bid for the 2026 World Cup.

However, McBride asserts that one e-commerce app was the real star of the tournament. "If there is a brand that had a bit of a coming-out party at the World Cup, it is Wish," he asserts.

Wish tapped into the idea of many powerhouse teams failing to qualify for the World Cup, including not only the U.S. but also Italy, Chile, and the Netherlands. It recruited star players for the social media-driven campaign #TimeOnYourHands about how they are spending their time away from the competition.

One video features Wales and Real Madrid star Gareth Bale learning how to be a barber after buying a pair of clippers. It has almost 7 million views on YouTube. Bale has also been tweeting about the campaign to his 17 million followers.

"#TimeOnYourHands was entertaining, had star power, and clearly showcased the Wish service," says McBride. "With the support of the talent who communicated it out on their own social channels I imagine it helped to generate lift for the Wish brand."

APCO Worldwide president Evan Kraus says he saw fewer standout brand moments than World Cups past. He blames the U.S. and Italy not making the tournament, as well as "some brands not wanting to be associated with controversies with FIFA or the host country." Many viewers have also taken a pass on this year’s tournament. English- and Spanish-language broadcast ratings were down more than 40% through the tournament’s quarterfinals before rebounding in the semifinals, according to Bloomberg.  

One campaign that sticks out to Kraus is Spanish LGBTQ organization FELGTB’s Hidden Flag project. It had six LGBT activists walk the streets in jerseys from Spain, the Netherlands, Brazil, Mexico, and Colombia to represent the Pride flag in Moscow.  

"Photos of the group walking the streets side-by-side quickly went viral and were shared by many LGBT alliance organizations and press outlets like BuzzFeed and Newsweek," says Kraus. "It was a creative and effective way to demonstrate the unifying force of the World Cup."

Social buzz
Tracking social chatter and visual imagery, such as a brand logo, analytics firm Talkwalker is measuring engagement-per-dollar of World Cup sponsorships. On average, it calculates sponsors gain 0.36 engagements for every dollar spent.

Some of the biggest sponsors at World Cup 2018, including Adidas and Chinese electronics brand Hisense, are hovering around that metric, but the brand getting the most bang for its buck according to Talkwalker is English sportswear and football equipment supplier Umbro.

Umbro is winning 4.7 engagements per dollar, despite only being the clothing sponsor for Peru, which celebrated its first World Cup win in 40 years when it shut out Australia.

Todd Grossman, CEO for the Americas at Talkwalker, says the brand is enjoying a lot of exposure via user-generated content as a result of England’s Cinderella run to the semifinals.

"Umbro was a long-time sponsor of England, and they ended their sponsorship in 2013. However, people are celebrating England’s success by wearing their old England kits with the Umbro logo," explains Grossman. "It shows how brand sponsorship can really pay off over time, and how brands can build history around the World Cup."

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