Why Adidas will win World Cup

Adidas has been the dominant World Cup sponsor in terms of coverage. Adam Hill looks at how it put its rivals in the shade.

For the 15 official partners of the World Cup, Friday’s opening game between Germany and Costa Rica marks phase two of campaigning. While the sponsor-arranged pre-tournament interviews with players will now give way to what happens on the pitch, sponsors will be aligning their strategies to their chosen players’ performances.

But barring another win by Brazil (sponsored by Nike), for German sports brand Adidas – which sponsors the German, Argentinian, French and Spanish teams – the World Cup has already been won – in terms of branded media coverage that is.

PRWeek first looked at the media coverage gained by sponsors in March, finding that Adidas had garnered 50 per cent more mentions in relation to the tournament than its nearest rival, Coca-Cola (PRWeek, 31 March). Since then, ICM (with Van Communications) has carried out exclusive research with PRWeek, which has for the first time asked people where they heard about each sponsor.

Adidas was again the hands-down winner. It had the highest recall in newspapers and magazines (30 per cent and 24 per cent respectively) and was equal to Gillette and Mastercard for its online recognition, at ten per cent.

Brand beater
While rivals Nike, Reebok and Umbro had strong public recall, they were down on Adidas generally. And ICM findings corresponded with press cuttings firm Factiva’s updated global research, which shows that Adidas outstripped its fellow sponsors.

So how was this achieved?

Although the brand has obvious football links – shirt, boot and player sponsorship – its UK head of PR, Sarah Gower, reveals it has strenuously avoided complacency: ‘The World Cup is in our home market. We just couldn’t screw up.’

Gower’s in-house PR team is supported by Hill & Knowlton. Its strategy for maintaining relationships with titles such as The Sun, the Daily Mirror and News of the World was to offer the most eye-catching visuals. Gower says: ‘I’m fed up with the same imagery; for example, a player holding a ball. But that’s what the nationals want, so if we were going to have to do it, we wanted it to be the best.’

Adidas does not sponsor the England team, but it does have deals with some of its top players. Fashion photographer Steve Toner was commissioned to photograph Adidas-sponsored players – including David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole. As far back as July 2005, Adidas sat down with lads’ mag FHM, football title FourFourTwo, and the tabloids, to negotiate exactly what pictures should be used.

Nike might ‘own’ Wayne Rooney and Ronaldinho, but Adidas has ‘Becks’. ‘Granting the media access to top players has proved vital,’ says Gower.

Copy approval, which players’ agents insisted on, also helped Adidas to control the message. ‘It doesn’t help if Beckham or Gerrard are talking about their personal lives,’ says Gower. ‘Everything has to come back to the product.’

For much of the build-up to the tournament, the Adidas PROs deliberately worked a narrow seam for its World Cup coverage. ‘We were more picky about who we worked with because we had the collateral,’ explains Gower. FourFourTwo, for example, sells just 110,000 copies per month – but its football-mad readers were a group Gower particularly wanted to reach.

One of Adidas’s biggest stories was that it supplied the balls that will be used in the tournament. Last December, it scooped the front page of the Daily Mirror. There was also a FourFourTwo cover with Beckham, and coverage in men’s lifestyle titles such as FHM. Meanwhile, Scott Mills’s BBC Radio 1 show and Sky Sports’ Soccer AM mentioned the Adidas ball link.

Another upward spike in Adidas’s global media coverage came with the February launch of the Tunit boot. It is a ‘customisable’ boot, with detachable, interchangeable elements that can be mixed and matched. ‘It wasn’t strictly part of our World Cup campaign, but it was a news hook,’ says Gower. ‘They will be worn in the World Cup by our sponsored players, so there was a tie-in with the nationals and lifestyle magazines.’

Journalists were sent a Tunit-branded video iPod, on which players’ reactions to the boot – including that of England defender Ashley Cole – were shown. Adidas would have been pleased that reports called the boot the ‘iPod of football’.

Trials and tribulations
But the campaign has not been without its headaches. In March, the PR team supported +10, part of a multi-million-dollar TV advertising campaign that featured kids picking a dream team of Adidas-sponsored players. The PR element involved setting up five-a-side tournaments, with the winners from each country playing in a ‘mini World Cup’.

‘We’d planned it six months earlier, but it turned out that Coca-Cola had the World Cup trophy – and a pre-injury Rooney – a couple of miles away on the same day as the final (PRWeek, 5 May),’ says Gower. ‘We had some interesting conversations with the papers,’ she adds, wryly.

Adidas publicised the event on TV by using paid-for programming on T4. It filmed journalists – from FHM, The Sun, Yahoo!, Metro, Radio 1 and lads’ site monkeyslum.com – playing with the stars. The tied-in ‘impossible dream’ TV ad was aired in April, featuring Zinedine Zidane, Lampard and Beckham. To publicise it, Adidas used its familiar tactic with the tabloids: ‘We have this picture and good stories we can offer you,’ is how Gower puts it.

Time is not yet up for Adidas. The tournament has started, but of course the company promises more PR activity over the next month. Why? Take Nationwide – not an official World Cup sponsor. It had the same newspaper recall as Adidas in the ICM poll. Carlsberg (with 21 per cent newspaper recall) also garnered extensive editorial, on the back of its TV ad featuring a pub football team.

Eddie May, co-founder of Threepipe Communications (which launched the England football kit), explains: ‘You’ll never get a “clean” environment as a tournament sponsor.’ In other words, there will always be other brands wanting a piece of the action.

Despite not being an official sponsor, Umbro achieved the closest recall as a ‘World Cup brand’ to Adidas. This may be because Umbro sponsors the England team, plus two of its stars: John Terry and Michael Owen. Head of UK brand marketing Adrian Cory says: ‘With the visibility we get on the back pages through the sponsorship, the perception is that we’re official partners of the Cup.’

Other sponsors’ PR does not seem to have worked as well. McDonald’s, for example, had just 17 per cent magazine recall (one of the lowest). But as Mark Cooper, co-founder of Van Communications, which handles PR for ICM, says: ‘Sponsorship is not just about editorial coverage. Brands could also be targeting business audiences, client suppliers, people with whom they want to establish a relationship. There are also hospitality opportunities that sponsorship brings.’

Other official sponsors are better suited to consumer activity during the tournament itself. Yahoo! is FIFA’s official website. ‘We’re approaching crunch time,’ points out Blake Chadlee, commercial director of Yahoo! UK. ‘For consumers, it’s the “internet World Cup”: buying tickets, sharing pictures, making travel arrangements.’

Nike could not be reached for comment on whether Rooney’s broken foot is a PR problem or a source of unexpected opportunity. But however his medical saga ends, Nike will no doubt agree with Gower. ‘The product is our commercial message,’ she says. ‘We’re a sports supplier. We need to flog shoes.’

When you strip out the glamour and glitz, the whole point of sponsorship – like the beautiful game itself – is rather simple.

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