The Industry Column - World Cup Narrative

11 Sep 2014

David Atkinson, managing partner at Space looks deep into the marketing narrative of a FIFA World Cup, with some classic examples of brand campaigns. 

Every World Cup tells a story. For England, it's usually one of heartbreak, bitterness and regret.

But first comes the marketing narrative. The same strands run through more or less every brand’s Coupe Du Monde campaign. Those themes, like England’s unlikely run to the knockouts before being cruelly dispatched, come around every four years. With only a few short weeks until it all kicks off in Brazil, you can’t miss them.

Space has studied recent World Cups and European Championships to consider major brands’ marketing, advertising and sponsorship activity. Including both sponsors and non-sponsors, it’s clear that brand activity can be clearly grouped into four areas: Flying the Flag, The Big Event, Football Connoisseur and Football Carnival. They’re worth exploring – each one has some classics examples.

First, Flying the Flag, and those brands that base their marketing on the hopes, aspirations, expectations and stars of the country’s World Cup effort. What better example, from 2006, than Mars rebranding its famous chocolate bar with ‘Believe’ during the tournament? For its own campaign in the same year, Kit-Kat followed a similar tactic by reliving the glory of 1966 using a mash-up of footage from the England v Germany final (any idea who won that one?) and the famous Russian linesman.

Chocolate bars weren’t the only brands to follow this theme in 2006. Carlsberg’s Old Lions ad featured an entire team of England greats playing Sunday morning football for ‘The Dog and Duck’ – and winning.  It was probably the best example of flying the flag in the world.

Then there is The Big Event, and those brands that are galvanised by the huge scale and unfathomable dedication of nations around the world to creating this global experience. Take Pepsi’s campaign for the 2002 tournament, when the Jules Rimet trophy travelled to Japan and South Korea. Not hesitating to embrace eastern stereotypes. Pepsi wheeled out the big guns, pitting David Beckham, Raul and Roberto Carlos – among other globally-recognisable international superstars – against a team of sumo wrestlers. And losing.

The Football Connoisseur group is all about celebrating the very fabric of the game: skills, statistics, players and stadia. Nike’s ‘airport’ commercial for the 1998 World Cup is a great example, as the Brazil squad – Ronaldo, Romario, Denilson et al – use an airport as a giant playground to showcase their abilities. There is also this year’s Risk Everything campaign, which features Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar. It focuses on the pressure placed on the players as they prepare to play on the world's stage, at the same time as embracing the innocent joy of playing and following the game.

Finally, Football Carnival is about celebrating the sociability, colours and festival nature of the World Cup – bringing continents and peoples together. This thread, for obvious socio-political reasons, ran through many campaigns for the 2010 tournament, staged in South Africa. Everyone from politicians to pop stars (see Shakira’s Waka Waka official theme song) to advertisers unashamedly embraced the ‘unified’ blueprint.

Car manufacturer Hyundai’s message in its own ad spelled it out. It was, it said, a “passionate sponsor of the event that unites the world through sport”. Then there was Pepsi’s ‘Oh Africa’ spot, starring Lionel Messi, Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard. The players visit an African township and take part in a game of football against a group of local kids for – of course – the prize of a can of Pepsi. Hundreds of locals get involved and mark out the pitch, but move with the players, effectively meaning that Pepsi’s group of superstars cannot get near the goal they are attacking.

Which brings us back to 2006 and Pepsi’s major rival, Coca-Cola. Coke ran a ‘Rivals’ spot eight years ago that brought together animated classic foes (postman and dog, cactus and balloon, cuckolded husband and secret lover) in celebration of their countries scoring a goal at the World Cup. But, while Coca-Cola gained the greatest success in marketing and sponsorship from the 2006 tournament, the true winner was the nation of Germany. The European Sponsorship Association’s post-World Cup evaluation session concluded later that year that the Germans managed to force a complete reappraisal of their country, their people, and their spirit and had repackaged themselves as a tourist destination and travel experience.

This year, however, Coca-Cola has disclosed contingency plans to adapt its World Cup sponsorship and soften its celebratory ‘Moments of Happiness’ theme in Brazil if civil unrest returns. Coke’s chief marketing and commercial officer even went so far as to say:

“That [World Cup] spotlight can act as an opportunity to tell a story of happiness, but it can also be a spotlight to tell a story of grievances and concerns that they [the public] have about the direction of the country.”

Whether their messaging changes tone to better reflect the mood of the country, and whether this year’s hosts or Coca-Cola will be as successful in their aims is yet to be seen. A change of narrative would be an unprecedented move, particularly with such a short time to go before it all kicks off. 

At least we can rely on the England team to deliver the same old story. Probably.

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