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Every four years, activities around the world come to a screeching halt. The cause of this disruption is the quadrennial playing of the World Cup, soccer’s most celebrated event that serves to crown the world’s preeminent football squad. This interest creates a rabid following, which helps to boost television and Internet viewings to unbelievable heights. As a point of reference, early games during this year’s World Cup had a worldwide average television viewership of over 125 million, with Internet traffic reaching more than 12 million visitors per minute. This is expected to peak during the final of the tournament, when over 850 million people are expected to view the event live. For some perspective, the series finale of M*A*S*H, the most watched event in U.S. television history, had 106 million sets of eyes watching. The sheer volume of the captive audience during the month long tournament presents a lucrative target for advertisers the world over.

In the United States, however, the World Cup has been largely an afterthought since its inception in 1930. If anything, the sport of soccer served as little more than comedic fodder for the average sports fan. However, the view of soccer began to change in the early 1990s, starting with the 1994 World Cup that was played in stadiums across this country. The growing interest in the United States seemed to reach a fever pitch for this year’s edition of the tournament, which has prompted an increase in advertising content aimed at fans of the game. 

With the awareness of the sport on the rise, many American companies have been utilizing soccer players from around the world in their ad campaigns. One of the more visible instances of this phenomenon has been Nike’s (NKE) “Write the Future” campaign. The ads show various endorsers of Nike products, specifically soccer players such as Wayne Rooney, Ronaldinho, and Landon Donovan, in various states of success and failure on the soccer field as a means of promoting its line of soccer merchandise. The commercial, which doesn’t specifically mention the World Cup, was a big budget masterpiece that was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who is famous for directing movies such as “Babel”, to give the campaign a polished look. The ads were well-received, with a view count on YouTube during the first week of well over 6.3 million, the highest for any sports ad during its initial week of release. However, the video has proven to be something of a black cloud for many of the players involved, as all but one of the seven featured athletes has been eliminated before the quarterfinals of the World Cup with Ronaldinho not even making the final Brazilian World Cup roster. However, the buzz from the ads has helped to increase Nike’s brand recognition with core soccer fans, a group that has traditionally favored products from Nike’s biggest worldwide rival Adidas.

One of the more popular trends for advertising campaigns in recent years have been to move away from bigger-name endorsers toward the use of user-generated content to help promote their products. Coca-Cola (KO) released a commercial centered on the history of soccer goal celebrations dating back to a distinctive dance after the first goal by an African player during the 1990 World Cup. The end of the commercial then encourages individuals to upload their own videos to the company’s website and YouTube pages. By allowing more user-generated content on its web site, Coca-Cola is able to more actively market its product, without overwhelming potential customers with its selling efforts.

Anheuser Busch InBev (BUD) has created a reality show for the World Cup to help promote its Budweiser beer brand containing one person from each participating nation in one house, with individuals getting removed from the house as their home country is eliminated from the tournament. The company has named the campaign Budweiser United, tailoring the ad name to give it a more soccer-style name. The Budweiser brand also has been one of the most heavily advertised during the television broadcasts, both through regular commercials during breaks in soccer action and by having ads within camera view during game action.

One of the more creative campaigns in recent months has centered around Disney’s (DIS) World Cup coverage on ESPN.  The company has used murals in cities across the world to help promote each of the teams playing in the World Cup. As an example, the one focusing on the United States shows members of the team in positions resembling the iconic painting of George Washington and his soldiers crossing the Delaware River. The murals are helping to familiarize less avid soccer fans with some of the more obscure teams in the tournament. In comparison to some past campaigns from the network, the understated nature of the current campaign has helped to improve the standing of the coverage with core soccer fans.

The ad campaigns for many of the companies participating in the World Cup usually serve two purposes. For companies such as Budweiser and Coca-Cola, the marketing efforts are vital in the efforts to maintain brand awareness and market share. For others, such as Nike and Disney, the ads serve to bolster their image and help to win over a group of fans that may not have been receptive to the company’s products. For the second group, these ad campaigns are likely to prove much more lucrative, as the increased sales or viewership numbers should more than justify the high outlays required for these types of campaigns. With soccer continuing its ascent in the United States, the next edition of the World Cup in 2014 will likely see a further increase in marketing spending by American companies. Furthermore, although most sports broadcasting rights fees have been trending downward during the recent economic downturn, the sharp increase in United States viewership will likely lead to heated bidding war for the rights to broadcast the 2018 World Cup. Along with these higher rights fees, the cost for running commercials during the next event is likely to approach that of other high-profile sporting events, such as the Olympics and the NFL’s Super Bowl.