World Cup 2018: the greatest marketing festival on earth

The latest installment of the FIFA World Cup in Russia has come and gone, bringing with it the usual assortment of ambush marketing campaigns. Plus football.

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This year there was nothing quite as dramatic as the Bavaria Blondes incident of South Africa 2010, nor was there anything quite as inspired as the Beats by Dr. Dre “Game before the game” short of Brazil 2014.  No, Russia 2018 was primarily marked by run-of-the-mill equipment violations (non-authorized beverage containers, socks, and socklets - for shame!) and vending machines full of eerily anonymized food and beverage products at all official FIFA venues (‘chocolate with crispy wafer’ anyone?).  We have waded through all the material generated by one of the great global adstravaganzas to bring you some of the more interesting marketing wins (and fails) of Russia 2018. 

Player development pipeline

The prize for biggest own-goal this year went to Burger King.  It falls into the illustrious category of marketing fails we like to call ‘Questionable Calls To Action’.  Burger King announced on Russian social media a grand prize of 3 million Russian roubles (around USD 47,000) and a lifetime supply of Whoppers for any women who managed to get impregnated by a football player competing in the World Cup.  The insult was upsized with a side of eugenics by the suggestion that the promotion aimed to snare the best football genes to boost the Russia national team for generations to come.  Aside from being a very clumsy attempt at ambush marketing, the content and nature of the promotion also raised some thorny legal questions, all leading to apologies from the fast food chain’s Russian business. 

Wear your heart on your sleeve

The prize for “most unusual” ambush marketing incident goes to the Croatia goalkeeper, Danijel Subasic, who lifted his jersey to expose a t-shirt commemorating a former team mate who had died in 2008 from injuries sustained during a soccer match.  Subasic has been known to wear the t-shirt under his kit for years.  No specific causes are tied to the commemorative gesture, it appears to have simply been a nod to a fallen friend.  FIFA ultimately issued a warning for displaying the personal message.  We all know how valuable the ‘space’ (be it physical, digital, emotional, conceptual) around the World Cup is;  it’s the reason why official Partners and Sponsors are willing to shell out those eye watering sums every four years.  Just another example of how zealously FIFA polices the very lucrative space around this crown jewel.         

Mongolian dairy and electric scooters

Most intriguing” marketing win goes to the contingent of major Chinese brands that stepped into the sponsorship void left by the likes of Johnson & Johnson, Sony, and Continental.  Controversy around past behaviours created a real sponsorship flight for FIFA in 2018.  Enter a bevy of major Chinese household brands, ultimately comprising a third of all global sponsors.  This included an official partnership, the highest tier of sponsorship available, for the Wanda Group, a property and entertainment goliath based in Beijing.  While many spectators and viewers would have been stumped if asked to describe the products made by Meng Niu or Yadea (Mongolian dairy products and electric scooters respectively, BTW) Russia 2018 will likely be viewed in hindsight as a major inflexion point for Chinese global involvement in the beautiful game.  President Xi Jinping has expressed a wish to turn China into a world football superpower by 2050, and it’s likely that China will bid to host a World Cup before then.  with the combinations of the sheer number of eyeballs commanded by the World Cup globally and the international ambitions of Chinese corporates portendsa shift that is likely here to stay.  Currently, enforcement activity in China around ambush marketing stunts are few and far between.  As more and more Chinese companies enter the fray and begin to invest in lucrative sponsorships of major international sporting events, we can only imagine both would be ambushers and regulators taking a more active interest in this area. 

And the winners are…

We’ll wrap with some of our favourite ambush marketing wins of 2018.  Starting off with Umbro’s amusingly un-catchy English football anthem, as performed by Youtube geek musician Brett Domino.   Not a hint of any brands, FIFA properties, teams, or player names.  And educational to boot.  Kind of.

In line with its brand identity and tongue-in-cheek spoofs of recent years, Ikea continued the tradition with a series of simple product ads and tweets that tracked the progress of the tournament.  From a detachable sofa for “when your friends cheer for the wrong team”, a Hemnes coat stand (“Congratulations England, hats off to you”) to an offer of £1 fish and chips in store in response to the rowdy occupation of an East London Ikea location following the exit of the Swedish team at the hands of the English.  Cheeky, light, and absolutely on point. 

Lastly, perhaps one of the great winners of World Cup 2018; Apple.  Despite the total absence of Apple from any official sponsorship arrangements with either FIFA or specific players, its AirPods were ubiquitous in World Cup news coverage.  They could be spotted at the airport, during training sessions, exiting from team buses.  Of course, we’ve seen this before, from the original white EarPods through to the acquired Beats stable of audio wear, Apple has made it its business to design distinctive and striking audio accessories.  A secondary benefit of this design approach is a suite of wearables which say nothing (no logos or trademarks) and yet say everything.  A powerful strategy which presents both opportunities and IP challenges.          


Charlotte Trinh
Senior Consultant


Chad Dowle
Head of Media, Advertising and Digital