The Fédération Internationale de Football Association, popularly known as FIFA, was formed in 1904 to oversee, organize and promote international football competitions, including the World Cup™, the 21st edition of which is ongoing in Russia. With billions of viewers spread across the globe, the FIFA World Cup is currently the largest single sporting event all over the world. In 2014 alone, an estimated 3.2 billion people watched the World Cup across various channels worldwide! With such expansive reach, the quadrennial competition always avails juicy marketing opportunities and drives intense advertising activity for affiliated brands. In the end, a mutually rewarding relationship is borne between the organising brand and their selected sponsors.
Sports sponsorship is the backbone of every major sports event: certain companies render financial support and/or technical expertise in exchange for exclusive rights to various segments of an event, with the aim of promoting global brand awareness and enhancing brand credibility. As a non-profit organization, FIFA makes its revenues, recorded in a four-year cycle and revolving around its biggest event – the World Cup, by selling licensing, marketing and television rights. During the period leading to the ongoing World Cup™, between 2015 and 2018, the body reported a total of over $5.6 billion in revenue. The football governing body earned $3 billion from selling television rights, $1.45 billion from marketing rights, $363 million from licensing rights, $575 million from hospitality/accommodation rights and $268 million from other sources.
For the 2018 World Cup in particular, the rights to use FIFA’s intellectual property assets, create an association to the event, and have a marketing presence within a specified radius of the World Cup event sites are granted exclusively to companies that have entered into a formal contractual agreement in three large categories – as FIFA partners, FIFA World Cup sponsors and Regional sponsors. Usually, such collaborations are a win-win; the event organiser gets financial support for their event while sponsors get a return on their investment through channels ranging from increased brand visibility to outright sales boost.
Essentially, the lifeblood of marketing communication is to get smack into the middle of social trends and latch on, strategically, with the aim of connecting with your target audience. This can be done directly through sponsorship or by indirect association with event materials. However, the restrictive nature of FIFA World Cup /marketing policy puts a damper on the advertising aspirations of brands that do not have a contractual relationship with the body. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily mean game over for the “underdog”. Over time, some of these other brands have cultivated and deployed creatively evasive tactics to dribble around the legal ‘red cards’ associated with the big game, while still riding on the World Cup fever to compete with FIFA’s commercial affiliates for global presence and brand awareness. Generally, the approaches employed extend from subtle, indirect marketing strategies to outright ones, the scope of which is popularly referred to as “Ambush Marketing”.
Ambush Marketing, a common tactic employed during major sporting events, entails attempt by advertisers to leverage on the prominence of an event for their brand’s marketing campaigns. Basically, such brands ambush their rivals who are official sponsors; play themselves off as official sponsors, cause brand confusion by stealing the attention of the official sponsors’ target audience and also, undermine the branding efforts of the official sponsors. It is usually of two forms: Direct and Indirect. The direct form includes a company’s strategy to falsely associate their brands with the event as an “official sponsor”, usually by making express references to trademarks relating to the event without any contractual agreement to do so, or in other cases, “factually marketing their role in connection to participants of an event”. Also, the indirect form of ambush marketing includes, but is not limited to, creating or joining a conversation around the event by using imagery, themes and values – like balls, stadiums and flags of countries, to evoke a mental association with the event. This is usually done in a bid to appeal to an audience that is aware of the event, without making specific references to the event itself or its intellectual property assets.
Moreover, the concept is not limited to non-sponsors of an event; an official sponsor can also create ambush-marketing strategies to get more promotional activity than authorized. For example, having a formal contractual agreement with FIFA did not prevent Coca-Cola from promoting its brands as the “official drink of the Super Eagles,” just as the lack of formal agreement with FIFA did not stop Pepsi from creating an eye-catching, star-studded advertising commercial with select Super Eagles players and other well-known celebrities to show their support for the Nigerian team. In the same vein, the Travelstart® brand had no qualms about creating travel deals around tourism locations in countries that qualified for the World Cup and even putting travel destinations head-to-head as their countries battle on the field of play.
Although, given the recent buzz around it, the concept may appear new to some, it in fact dates back to the 1980s. Jerry Welsh, a managing director at American Express, actually coined the term “Ambush Marketing”. Ironically, the same tactic was used by American Express on Visa, an official sponsor of the FIFA World Cup. Another iconic case of ambush marketing occurred during the 1994 Cricket world cup when PepsiCo® successfully ambushed the official sponsor, Coca Cola by running an ad titled “nothing official about it” and issuing a disclaimer. Also, something similar happened in Beijing 2008 where Coca Cola® was the official sponsor but PepsiCo was recognized instead, with Pepsi changing its traditional blue coloured cans to red in China. Perhaps, because of how easily posts can go viral on online platforms, social media have played a huge role in the promotion of ambush marketing. For example, during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, Nike® enjoyed more online presence than the official sponsor, Adidas®, with their “Write the Future” ad campaign which featured football stars such as Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. This generated over 14 million views, even before the commencement of the tournament.
Most recently, an incidental form of ambush marketing was recorded when Nike®, an official partner of the Nigeria Football Federation, released 2018 World Cup Football Kit for the Nigerian team. The kits, which were officially released on June 1st, 2018, sold out within minutes of its release. Besides, it generated a massive online buzz and, if the long queues at Nike Town worldwide were anything to go by, became a global must-have for both football fans and nonfans alike. In addition, its retro design of abstract feathered pattern has ranked it as the best football kit, according to GQ Magazine, out of the 32 competing teams in the tournament, ahead of the Adidas-produced Argentina kit. Note that Adidas is a rival company and an official sponsor of the FIFA World Cup. Overall, the described market reaction has gained Nike extensive attention that associates them with the ongoing tournament, without infringing on the exclusive rights of the official sponsors.
Meanwhile, organizing the FIFA World Cup™ is an expensive venture, and expectedly so. For instance, apart from the huge amount of money invested in building and enhancing state of the art infrastructure by the host nation in preparation for the tournament, FIFA itself spent 49.4% ($2.747 billion) of its revenue on event-related expenses in the ongoing World Cup. These include monies paid to the local organizing committee for conducting the global showpiece, prize money for participating countries, travel and accommodation of players, support staffs and match officials, amongst other expenses. In October last year, FIFA decided that the 2018 World CupTM, being one of the biggest events of all time, requires a prize that matches its status and increased the competitions overall prize fund to $400 million. Now, following a 12% increase on the last edition, the winner of the Mundial would go home with a $38 million slice of that cash, all 32 teams will receive $8 million as appearance fee, teams that crash out at the round of 16 will earn $12 million, while a quarter-final exit will bring a $16 million pat on the back. Furthermore, the runners-up in Russia will get a handsome $28 million, while those finishing 3rd and 4th will get $24 million and $22 million, respectively.
Given the numbers above, it is clear to see why FIFA has a tough stance on protecting its intellectual property assets and the interest of its partners, World Cup sponsors and national/regional supporters who form the crux of FIFA’s business model and accounts for the body’s revenue. Ambush marketing poses a potential threat, as a result of which the organiser may be unable to fulfill their part of the contractual agreement to provide exclusive marketing space; hence the value of sponsorship is reduced. According to FIFA, “If anyone could use the Official Marks for free and create an association with the FIFA World Cup™, there would be no reason to become a Commercial Affiliate. This would mean that FIFA could not appoint any Commercial Affiliates and would therefore not receive the revenue required to maintain the high standards expected of the FIFA World Cup™.” In the words of the old and wise, “why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”
In order to avoid these problems, event organizers like FIFA have devised countermeasures or restrictions against the use of intellectual properties, brand protection and creation of safe zones within the confines of the law that prevents nonsponsors from latching onto such events and making any gain either financially or otherwise. Aside from the coveted trophy, which is duly trademarked and copyrighted, FIFA develops and protects an assortment of logos, words, titles, symbols and other trademarks including fonts, for the World Cup. The world football body grants its affiliates the exclusive rights to privileges that come with the use of world cup rights to promote their brands and frowns at any attempt by a non-partner/sponsor/supporter to enjoy these rights through any means, including ambush marketing.