Brazil’s World Cup Is a Marketer's Dream, but Also a Potential Nightmare

A global audience of 3.2 billion

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The World Cup is the single greatest marketing tent pole on the planet. This year, 108 million people watched the Super Bowl, while 3.2 billion watched the last World Cup, 715 million for the finals alone. It attracts a fully engaged, globally diverse audience for a month of action both preceded and followed by four years of anticipation.

In short, it’s a marketer’s dream—and potential nightmare as well.

Let’s start with the challenges. First, soccer is played in 45-minute continuous halves with the only commercial breaks coming at halftime, so broadcast opportunities are limited. Second, the space available for purchase is hyper-inflated, with eight-figure commercial partnerships and global sponsorship packages sold out years in advance. Third, brands are competing for share of voice against each other and the personalities of the most idolized athletes in the world. Marketing cost and competition have never been so high.

And Brazil’s World Cup will be the most cluttered social conversation ever. According to Twitter, three separate soccer matches have already achieved higher tweets-per-second peaks than the 2012 London Olympics. The 2012 Euro Cup final alone generated 16.5 million total tweets from a viewing audience of just under 300 million. The last World Cup final drew more than twice as many viewers, and that’s just one game. There will be 64 matches next summer generating hundreds of millions of social mentions. That massive chatfest equates to a greater opportunity for earned media, but it also makes it incredibly difficult to stand out.

But if you’re a glass half-full person, you’re likely salivating at Brazil’s potential as a marketing and branding platform.

Interest in soccer is at an all-time high in the U.S., which is still the top market for most major advertisers. The MLS is expanding and international club teams regularly play in the states. Not to mention that ESPN shows more soccer than ever, Fox has an entire channel devoted to the sport, and NBC now carries the English Premier League, bringing the sport to a new level of prominence. In fact, the sport drives interest at scale among every demographic group. Most major sporting events are dominated by male viewers, but FIFA says 43 percent of global live viewership of the 2010 World Cup was female. That number was slightly lower in the U.S. (36 percent), but in Argentina, Brazil and France, the majority was female.

Second, limited commercial avails means less focus on television and more focus on social, digital and experiential platforms. Digital billboards surround the soccer fields, displaying dynamic content captured by cameras throughout the game. Think about how many fans would tweet with a branded hashtag for a chance to see their handle appear on the field during a match.

And keep an eye out for the second-screen war. With tablet and smartphone ownership soaring and 64 games packed into 32 days, you can expect record mobile viewership. Brands that find a toehold there will be welcomed into the pockets, briefcases and backpacks of millions of fans.

Events that involve this much advertising bring the world’s best marketers together to compete among themselves. During the 2010 World Cup, Nike drove more than twice as much social conversation as Adidas, despite it not being an official sponsor. However, Adidas set a company record with more than $1.8 billion in soccer-based sales that year, so both claimed victory.

Who will win the battle of jersey sales and YouTube views in 2014? Who will successfully turn athletes into walking billboards and ambassadors? The drama doesn’t stop at athletic brands; fast food, household products and credit cards will also be a part of the competition. So next summer, keep an eye out for the winners and losers. Technology and creativity will separate the two. And expect as many giant flops as historic performances. When the stakes are this high, some advertisers will be sure to regret their decisions.

The only guaranteed winners are FIFA, the games’ broadcasters, probably Brazil, and hopefully the beautiful games’ fans.

Mike Mikho (@mikemikho) is manager of business development at Big Fuel.

Illustration: Dan Page