4 marketing takeaways from the 2018 World Cup

It's the biggest sporting event in the world and rife with pitfalls and opportunities for brands.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Every four years, the world comes together for the biggest sporting event on the planet, the FIFA World Cup. It was estimated that more than 3.4 billion people globally watched the tournament.

I was in Russia running programming for one of FleishmanHillard’s global clients. Here are some key takeaways for brands activating on this unique world stage.

Go ‘glocal’
Thirty-two countries participated in the first round. "Glocal" isn’t a new term, but there’s no better property to which sponsors should apply the approach.

The FIFA World Cup is one of the unique opportunities to have relevance with fan bases outside of your home market, so take advantage and create a campaign that transcends borders and mirrors the global nature of the tournament. Build your collection of assets so you have global appeal and a cohesive, overarching story, but tailor campaign assets to resonate with fans in local markets.

Understand the nuances of localizing content. Engage local experts. Don’t expect a single piece of content to be adaptable to different markets simply by swapping in talent and different languages.

Account for conversation ups and downs and pre-engineer your own social chatter
All sponsors have priority business markets. Some of them competed in the tournament, some did not qualify, and some were eliminated early.  

The U.S. is the best example. It was a hard blow when the U.S. Men’s National Team did not qualify, both for fans and sponsors, so we needed to adjust strategies accordingly. There was a very low level of conversation before the World Cup in the U.S., but then explosive passion for the finals providing rich territory for brands to deploy creative assets and engage with fans when attention was high.

(Above: The FIFA World Cup Conversation by FleishmanHillard TRUE Global Intelligence)

Real-time brand war rooms have become table stakes at global events, but the prep work is where the difference between winning and losing happens. Do social scenario planning well before the event starts: look at World Cup global conversations online, overlay that with the topics most authentic and active for your brand, and prepare assets that fuel both win-lose scenarios, along with a sample amplification and response plan. Get this pre-approved before you and your team get on that international flight, but also set aside resources to activate on the unforeseen trends that will inevitably have everyone talking. Doing this prep work properly takes a lot of time, but it saves time when you are on the ground at the event.

Be prepared to take a stand before you reach the stands
One thing I’ve learned from 10 years in sports and sponsorship is that brands must be prepared to both promote and protect their reputations. I’ve seen brands pulled into commentary about social issues and the geopolitical landscape. Not every client is comfortable leading values-driven conversations. However, we are living in a time when brands are expected to use their sponsorship for more than their own commercial agenda, so we do need to address that global sentiment. Be prepared for these conversations to have legs, especially when there’s no action on the field. Off-field topics can and will dominate the conversation.

2018 has been no different. From the NFL to the Olympic Games and FIFA World Cup, we saw social causes front-and-center. For the World Cup, it was primarily tied to the geopolitical landscape, particularly for the U.S. and England given tense relationships with Russia, and human rights, considering Russia’s anti-LGBT laws. All brands were pulled into conversation about how they are using their sponsorship to propel change.  

Scenario planning and playbooks that encompass different situations, processes, and messaging are invaluable at global sporting events and around any major sponsorship.

Know the ground game
Compared to most sporting events that take over one stadium, arena, field, and city, the FIFA World Cup is a behemoth. There were 12 stadiums in 11 cities, and outside of Moscow, which had two stadiums in one city, they all required a trek by train or plane. The logistics of activating your campaign can be overwhelming.

Outside of a presence in stadiums, sponsors must choose whether they’ll activate within every host city or focus on a major hub, like Moscow, as a place to serve as home base for fan and media activations. Find the hub – or hubs – that work for your campaign, driving the most effective activations and engagement with fans.

In Russia, Moscow was definitely the central hub for most brand and media activity. Major broadcast studios were set up in Moscow, including CNN and FOX in Red Square and ESPN studios overlooking the Moscow River. While reporters and crews were hopping from city to city throughout the tournament following priority matches and specific teams, Moscow had a continuous hum of fan and sponsor activity for the five weeks throughout the tournament.  

Every sporting event brings its own unique advantages and challenges. For a global opportunity, though, few compare to the FIFA World Cup. If you do it right, by going "glocal," pre-engineering assets across win-lose scenarios, stepping up to the issues, and navigating the ground game, the World Cup can help make your client’s brand an international star.  

Brett Cummings is SVP at FleishmanHillard.

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