Media buyers have endured a stressful few months navigating campaigns through the choppy waters of the Qatar 2022 World Cup and a cost of living crisis Christmas.
Sepp Blatter, the former Fifa president, recently admitted that it was a “mistake” to award the World Cup to Qatar, with it having disrupted the football calendar, cost the lives of countless construction workers and threatened to endanger LGBTQ+ visitors to the gulf state. There’s a brand safety bomb ticking away below the world’s biggest sporting event.
Most western sponsors have opted to leave the host nation out of their campaigns, with Budweiser’s creative taking place in a tunnel, Hyundai’s starring BTS in South Korea, ITV’s promo focusing on our love of previous World Cups and Fox Sports spinning a tale of a Christmassy USA. Coca-Cola’s global campaign could feasibly be set in a Middle Eastern locale, although Qatar’s excessive skyscrapers are noticeably absent.
All that aside, the competition crashed into an already congested festive window that will make or break the biggest brands. So, how have media buyers navigated this Christmas nightmare?
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The marketing angle
Amar Singh, senior vice-president of content and communicationsand regular contributor to The Drum, has been working with brands to guide them through this “very complex situation”.
Speaking at The Drum Media Summit (video below), he said: ”There is a huge amount of passion and love for football and deep football legacy in the Middle East. You can make an argument for that region finally hosting but at the same time, there are concerns about human rights, LGBT rights, not to mention the prohibitive cost to the fans which seems like an after-thought.”
He points out that a lot of brands and sponsors tried to stop the tournament from being hosted in Qatar, but since then all stakeholders have had to come to terms with the fact the show must go on.
But Singh believes public sentiment has soured towards the tournament. “Over the past three or four years, you’ve seen renewed conversations around racial equality, the death of George Floyd, while climate activism has gathered momentum and you have seen post-pandemic people talking more about the planet and purpose-driven marketing, as well as growing athlete activism. We are in a very different world than when the tournament was in Russia.”
But it remains a huge viewing occasion that no broadcaster can pass on. ”In the northern hemisphere, in winter, TV viewing tends to go up, so there are huge opportunities for brands outside the World Cup that are carrying a bit less moral weight than sponsors.” So far, BrewDog and Duolingo have ambushed the tournament to mixed success, with some saying that brands taking a stance better have their own houses in order first.
On the inconvenience of the congestion, ITV sales director Mark Trinder joined The Drum’s TV Talks podcast to mourn the absence of a summer tournament for the commercial broadcaster, saying: “A Euros or a World Cup for four weeks in the middle of the summer is literally like an island in the ocean. You can isolate it and wrap around it.”
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What the fans think
Robbie Lyle, founder and chief executive of Arsenal Fan TV (AFTV) and Global Fan Network (GFN), was in Russia for World Cup 2018, not long after the Salisbury novichok attack by Russian spies. “As a Black person going to Russia, a lot of my friends said to me, ’Hey, are you sure?’ We’d all heard the stories, but it was a brilliant World Cup. Once it got started, people started to forget about the issues.”
He asks whether, when it comes to the Qatar tournament, it’s selfish of football fans to just try and enjoy the sport. “There’s been loads and loads of negativity and a lot of it for good reasons, but at the moment there’s a lot of negativity around in general – electricity prices are up, mortgages are going up, there’s the war in Ukraine. So for a month, this might lift people up.”
He believes that once this gets underway, “a lot of the negativity might sort of dissipate”. With four fixtures airing a day during the group stages, he says: “You’re not going to be able to ignore it. It’s going to be absolutely everywhere.”
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How the media buyers adapted
Monica Majumdar, head of strategy at Wavemaker, has been helping brands navigate this highly complex space from a media buying perspective. Even six months ago, brands had to decide whether their advertising would be hooked to the World Cup, the Christmas rush or a combination of both, she says. “Both of those occasions are extremely valuable for businesses, so we had to prepare them for these overlapping.“
For strategists like Majumdar, there was so much more to consider. “Normally you know your regular competitor set, but then with the added bonus of the World Cup, you suddenly have alcohol and food delivery brands that are going to be live as it is a key season for them. This is coupled with the fact that there’s the normal Q4 media inflation added to World Cup inflation, so we have to work out how to balance these costs.“ As a result, Majumdar has been looking to shake up the marketing channels used in order to find the best pricing.
Key to it all, she says, was for brands to be sure what their priority is – World Cup or Christmas. Do you go full funnel on World Cup and then activate Christmas at retail shelves or vice versa? Perhaps there’s something to be said of campaign phasing and holding on to a few pieces of evolving creative.
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The true difficulty here is that the World Cup runs through the “core Christmas and Black Friday” period. Majumdar wonders whether Christmas campaigns, which have all mostly launched now, will pause for a duration during the World Cup. “And if so, when will they resume? On December 18? By then, people have usually bought their Christmas presents.”
In England, this will all likely depend on how long the nation lasts in the tournament. Upon being ditched, football fervor and viewing figures tend to die down.
There’s another element here too and that is the cost of living crisis. With reduced wage packets at the end of the year, it’s commonly held that some shoppers have been buying gifts earlier. That’s a pressure that has seen Christmas campaign season come closer to Halloween in recent years.
It’ll take some time to work out which campaigns won the day and which ones lost. Will those that bet big on the most controversial World Cup of our time be rewarded?