It’s understandable that the experienced pundits featured in Campaign’s recent "Should brands steer clear of the World Cup?" article expressed concerns about advertiser involvement in the tournament.
At first glance there appear to be plenty of barriers to entry: this isn't the smiling-happy-beach faces of Brazil. This is the Putin government. This is doping issues. This is 11 different time zones in one country. This is the backdrop of FIFA and all its heavy baggage.
Brands wary of the event, which has been beset with image problems from the outset, should think again, however, as it will have a wide-reaching impact as a showcase for the future of sport. And their concerns mask the bigger picture: the extent to which football media has been revolutionised by digital and the change in consumer behaviour and expectations this has brought about.
The biggest shift is the extent to which sport is breaking away from the long-established TV broadcast model – for proof, look no further than ESPN, which last month cut 150 jobs in response to a falling subscriber base and rising live rights costs.
This was neatly foreshadowed by the landmark streaming partnership struck earlier this year by America’s National Football League and Twitter, prompting much speculation about the future of live sports being social. This revolution in sport media will be even more evident when played out across a global stage in the run up to, and during, next year’s Russian World Cup.
Removal of barriers and the shifting media landscape present a golden opportunity for brands that embrace the new. Brands that understand that this World Cup won't be won on perimeter hoardings and in stadium exposure alone. Brands that understand a glossy TV spot won’t cut through to a young audience – we’ve moved a long way beyond the cultural impact created by even Nike’s brilliant "Write the Future" 2010 World Cup campaign.
World's common denominator
Football directly connects with 3.5 billion fans around the globe, so is the world's ultimate common denominator and unifying force, beyond even music. It galvanises, it does good, and it brings people together as one. And the World Cup does this better than any other competition.
Brands must understand, however, that timeline viewing will provide greater control over which segments of a game audiences want to watch, when they want to watch it, and that providing opportunities for individuals to drop their own comedy nugget observations into every game will create a world of sporting moments. From Ronaldo’s Moth to the annual Champions League demise of Arsene Wenger, plan for a World Cup made entirely of moments and memes.
Audiences will gravitate away from passive pundits dishing out platitudes from the sidelines, towards colourful, characterful people who wear their colours on their chest, helping fuel the emergence of a "reaction economy" – emerging apps like Reactoo, which allows users to share their friends’ social video reactions, are just one indicator of this.
Brands will undoubtedly play a growing role – not just in curating content but also honing and owning the shape of the conversation. Those best able to develop their own moments, drop incredible (and opinionated) talent into the conversation, and conjure up surprising collaborations will help drive a "must see" experience all fans will want to follow.
Just as Alex Hunter, the avatar graphic in the FIFA series of video games, advertises Adidas Predator boots, so those who mix content with ad spots and real life will look smart.
It will take expertise, authenticity, and confidence to make this the best World Cup for brands yet. Looked at this way, the real issue for brands is how best to exploit a rapidly emerging array of new opportunities on, around, and off, the pitch.