It is not hyperbole to say the World Cup is by far the most engaging event (sporting or otherwise) in the world.  32 national teams will compete in 64 matches over one month for the ultimate prize in soccer (OK, football), stoking the competitive passions of over one billion people watching – 10 times the audience for the Super Bowl and 1/7th of the world’s population.  Given the magnitude of this audience, some of the world’s largest brands (Coca-Cola, Adidas, Budweiser, Hyundai) pay hundreds of millions of dollars to be sponsors.  In addition, some of the world’s most well-known athletes are participating – Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo alone has a social media following north of 300 million, and superstars like Lionel Messi and Neymar are household names from Boston to Bombay.

Yet the 2018 World Cup poses some thorny issues for brands associated with the tournament, as a number of factors and uncertainties could undermine marketing efforts, including but not limited to:

Amidst these political and sporting factors, three key challenges for brands emerge:

  • How to foster a connection with viewers, particularly American viewers lacking a team to root for
  • How to find and target the right audiences throughout the World Cup tournament
  • How to engage audiences in an experience that navigates these difficulties while building brand equity and loyalty

 While daunting, below are some ideas to help brands overcome these challenges and make the most of this extraordinary event:

1. Build an Emotional Connection with Viewers

Whether or not the US is participating in the World Cup, there are a host of different ways that sponsors and broadcasters can build an emotional connection with viewers, either at the team or country level:

  • Human interest stories: Take a page from the Olympic telecasts that focus in on the background stories of individual athletes participating. For example, Egyptian striker Mo Salah had a stunning season in the English Premier League and helped overcome barriers with his open Muslim faith.  And Roman Torres, captain of the Panama national team and Seattle Sounders defender, scored a dramatic late goal against Costa Rica to secure Panama’s first ever World Cup qualification (Panamanian officials have since proposed to name a stadium to honor the MLS star). These personal stories help broadcasters craft narratives around the matches and introduce new fans to the sport’s marquee players who play in the US and abroad.
  • Champion the underdog: During the Euro 2016 tournament, broadcasters latched onto the Cinderella story of Iceland, who beat soccer powerhouse England and made it to the quarterfinals. Iceland qualified for the 2018 World Cup for the first time and is the smallest nation ever to reach the round of 32.  And countries like Peru (who last qualified in 1982) and Egypt (last qualified in 1990) are packed with talent and could pull off dramatic upsets against tournament favorites.
  • Highlight marquee talent: Without the US team participating, marketers will likely need to rely more heavily on the most notable talents in the tournament, such as Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and others whose talents and media presence transcend the sport. Brand can also leverage US celebrities and tap into their loyal followings by associating them with the tournament and its stars (see Beats by Dr. Dre’s 2014 World Cup commercial).
  • Embrace Russian diversity: Despite its reputation in the press driven largely by Vladimir Putin, Russia remains a collection of ethnicities and cultures that spans 11 times zones. And since the stadiums where games are played are spread across most of these time zones, it could be an opportunity to celebrate the local diversity and regional pride that, in some ways, is similarly reflected in the diversity represented across the U.S.
  • Challenge Russian intolerance: On the other hand, the World Cup could provide a way to highlight the importance of unity and equality, a hallmark of Olympic marketing efforts, particularly in 2018. These themes could provide a welcome antidote to the current Russian climate of intolerance toward LGBTQ and other marginalized groups. Major sponsors have the opportunity to keep FIFA and the Russian government accountable for new human rights policies banning discrimination and racism.
  • Highlight Team USA: Although the U.S. team’s failure to qualify is disappointing, it does it mean that players are available to provide perspectives and commentary throughout the tournament. Fox Sports has brought on U.S. soccer legends such as Cobi Jones and Tony Meola to the in-studio team. Companies can also cross-market and highlight where the US talent does lie: The Women’s US team, which is the reigning World Cup champion. Fox Sports has already hired Aly Wagner, former US national team player as the first female game analyst for the men’s World Cup on American television.

2. Segment and Target the World Cup Viewer

While the size of the World Cup audience is enviable, brands need to focus on greater precision, particularly in the US, to make sure those that are most engaged with the tournament are most engaged with your brand.  In fact, the diversity of teams participating in the World Cup is a reflection of the diversity of the US, where fans of every participating nation currently live and reside.  Finding and targeting these groups could be essential to maximizing marketing investment and impact.

  • The obvious place to start is capitalizing on the enormous passion and soccer following among the Hispanic population in the US, particularly in Mexico which is a participant in the 2018 World Cup. In fact, when the Mexican national team plays in the US it is almost playing a “home” game given the proximity and passion of its fan base.  Therefore, more precise targeting via digital channels, regional and local language programming can help brands get the most leverage out of brand and marketing investments. Telemundo has planned over 1,500 hours of Spanish language coverage, providing a platform for brands to reach the Hispanic demographic.
  • In addition, the popularity of soccer in the US varies not only demographically, but also regionally, so finding the pockets of passionate interest and targeting those areas will be essential. For example, in its inaugural season in MLS, Atlanta United broke attendance records (and holding steady at about 50,000 per game) and has unified the city around a common team (particularly for transplants).
  • Also, American viewership of the English Premier League (EPL), what some call the top soccer league in the world, continues to grow and while small in comparison to football and basketball, can exceed one million television viewers for key matches. In addition, impassioned fans of EPL teams have formed local fan clubs around the country that watch matches in bars at 8 am on a Saturday and have cultivated a passion for the sport.
  • Finally, the predominance of youth soccer around the country means there is a built-in audience that has grown up playing soccer. Some estimates place the number of youth soccer participants in the US at almost 4 million – making it one of the most played sports by children in the US.  In addition, many more play the EA Sports FIFA soccer video game – the FIFA 18 version sold over 2 million copies in the US alone.  Between youth soccer participants and millennial video game enthusiasts, there are many millions who will engage with the tournament.

3. Adapt the Customer Experience

The World Cup in Russia will be taking place over 11 time zones and some matches will be played live while the US is still asleep.  As a result, many will primarily experience the World Cup through curated highlights on digital channels.  Brand managers need to embrace and leverage these new channels to reach their core customers.

  • Marketers need to find new technologies and social media channels to bring the games to life in this new digital age. This evolution is already underway (the 2014 World Cup produced 618,000 tweets per minute) and marketing analysts predict a 20% increase in social media investment by affiliated broadcasters of the World Cup this year
  • Fox Sports signed agreements with Twitter and Snapchat to produce 30-minute live shows featuring former U.S. legends such as Landon Donovan. Snapchat will also curate a daily “Publisher Story” to show highlights from matchdays, both on and off the pitch
  • In addition to leveraging these innovative channels, brands need to find the key “moments that matter” during matches. While this could obviously include goals, it can also include key disciplinary decisions (such a red cards), key VAR decisions (Video Assistant Referees – being used for the first time at the World Cup), as well as the inevitable oddities that occur at any World Cup, such as biting (see Uruguay’s Luis Suarez) or head butts (see France’s Zinedine Zidane).  World Cup marketers will have to be especially nimble, highlighting ad hoc moments throughout the tournament that transcend the controversies and political climate.

Former English striker Michael Owen aptly stated that “there is nothing quite like the World Cup.”  The tournament, watched by billions across the globe, has deep political, cultural and economic significance that transcends the pitch. Every four years, the tournament presents an unparalleled platform for marketers to reach core and new customers. But the World Cup also presents challenges as brands navigate political contexts, diverse audiences and new technologies. Ultimately, despite the many risks and uncertainties related to the 2018 World Cup, savvy marketers and brand managers can find opportunities to build brand equity and loyalty during the beautiful game’s greatest showcase.