Russia 2018: A World Cup overshadowed by assassinations, scandal and politics.

The World Cup, ahead of the Olympic Games, is set to be the largest global sporting event to take place this year. During the 2014 edition, recorded levels of TV viewers surpassed expectations of broadcasters, with a total of 3.2 billion viewers amassed in Brazil, while an audience of over one billion saw Germany overcome Argentina in the final in the Maracaná. With such a wide global reach, it is easy to comprehend why this quadrennial event is considered by brands the most cost-effective means of reaching a mass audience and tailoring campaigns to a specific fan bases. The opportunities for fan engagement at a World Cup transcend what occurs on the pitch. A World Cup has always been a mass fusion of different cultures and above all a celebration of the hosting nation, incorporating so much more than just football. Yet, this summer’s tournament in Russia has been blighted by a catalogue of scandals within FIFA and has become tangled up in the extremities of Russian politics, making it significantly less appealing to sponsors.

The World Cup stage is certainly no stranger to public scrutiny. The major investment pumped into the construction of new stadiums and networks of transport from the Brazilian government was met with significant uproar and protest from local communities, bringing internal issues of inequality and abject poverty in the country into sharp focus. Notwithstanding these complications, once the action began many people quickly began to look beyond the inequity of a $14 billion spend in a nation where welfare and support was being cut and ultimately many brands managed to emerge triumphant.

 

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Adidas for one benefitted significantly, accumulating followers beyond the 5 million mark across its social media platforms over the course of the tournament. Another success story from 2014 was the global sports and entertainment content marketing firm Octagon, who deployed 2287 staff in Brazil and contrived to deliver 6 million fan engagements. Joel Seymour-Hyde, head of the Company spoke with Drum in the aftermath of the final and underlined how the iconography of Brazil was an immensely rewarding theme for brands to tap into, stating that it “leant itself so amazingly for the sponsors – green, gold, beach – but it was also really easy to ambush”. He added that  “You had loads of brands who’d just chuck a Rio beach on a packet of crisps by way of an ambush programme”.

However, the likelihood of a similar business model and strategy being applied this summer has been in doubt ever since the awarding of the tournament to Russia in December 2010 and as such many Companies have opted to pull back on investment. This month’s attempted assassination of Russian nerve agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury is symptomatic of how public perception of the Russian World Cup has become toxic and engulfed by scandal. Concerns over Russia’s suitability to host such a major global event predate this incident. In September, the UN human rights report accused agents of the Russian state of a major breach of human rights, accusing them of  “grave human rights violations, such as arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment and torture”. Meanwhile last week the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson questioned the validity of the event in unambiguous terms, likening it with Hitler’s use of the 1936 Olympic games and suggesting it will serve as a propaganda tool to promote his regime. During the winter Olympic games, Vitaly Mutko, who was appointed the 2018 World Cup chief, was embroiled a doping scandal from which the Russian team was expelled in Pyongyang. The list of scandals that have marred the 2018 World Cup is long and unsettling.

In a time when the need establish trust and offer transparency has never been greater, it is no surprise that major sponsors have been ruminating on the potential risks of investing in the World Cup, with various sponsorship deals still up in the air. The fundamental purpose of sponsorship alliances is to reap the rewards of associating your brand with another. Against the backdrop of 2017, a year fraught with concern over brand safety, John Parker, board director at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment voiced his reluctance to associate with a nefarious world power like Russia who currently stand accused of meddling with the 2016 American elections, among several other charges. He states that the strategies that proved so successful in Brazil would in all likelihood have an adverse effect this time round “It would be a majorly risky move to try and align yourself with all that’s good with Russia because there’s so many counter arguments to that”.

 

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A further indictment of the Russian situation could soon be realised, as rumours circulate over one of the World Cup brand’s customary sponsors McDonald’s indecision to invest in this summer’s edition, over mounting doubts over their capacity to guarantee the safety of its mascots, a common feature of its campaigns in tournaments gone by. Doubts over Fifa’s integrity as an institution represent another unpleasant dimension to the 2018 World Cup. The awarding of the Russian 2018 and then Qatar 2022 tournaments, two countries that are anything but democratic, raised more than a few eyebrows at the time. With the latter’s dangerously high temperature, lack of any footballing heritage and shocking human rights record, perhaps only North Korea tops it as a less appropriate setting for such an important global event. Even after the ousting of the disgraced former President of FIFA Sepp Blatter, the question of corruption lingers on.

On account of these factors, a commercial alliance World Cup and FIFA has never felt less appealing for brands. But for now, the show must go on and those who have opted to go ahead with sponsorship this summer will no doubt have been thinking of how best to promote their own brands, amidst the chaos and tension that surrounds the event. John Parker added that campaigns may have to be diverted to football, in an effort to deflect the ongoings off the pitch. “This time [brands] are just going to focus more on the purity of the game and the stars rather than pulling out specific iconography”. Indeed, regardless of the many concerns, the persuasion of a compelling and competitive tournament on a sporting level may uphold the World Cup as a premium event and generate similar levels of interest on global television screens.

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