Controversial or not, the World Cup in Qatar is a magnet for brands

By Mark Tungate

Controversy around the staging of the World Cup in Qatar has been widely reported in the West. Not so much in the Middle East, where fans, advertisers and the hospitality industry have been rubbing their hands in anticipation.

“In the UAE the World Cup is being seen as the next step after the Expo 2020 economic boom,” relates Nathalie Bontems, editor of the regional magazine Communicate, based in Dubai (a franchisee of Advertising Age).

“Hotels are overflowing, airline companies are doing extremely well. This is regarded as a blessing for the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council). All flights to Qatar have been booked for two months.”

Local media coverage has been overwhelming positive. “The issues that have cropped up in the western media are not visible here. The average person on the street is thrilled about this event.”

Of course, news of the controversy has slipped through the net. “If anything, fans here felt defensive about the criticism, as if the west thinks the Arab world is somehow unworthy of staging a World Cup,” adds Nathalie. “You have to keep in mind that there’s a solidarity between the Gulf countries.”

She reports that Adidas, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Volkswagen were among brands active in the run-up to the event, with others due to engage after kick-off.

“About 70 per cent of the population of Saudi Arabia is under 25 and they’re really into football. Add to that the fact that the GCC market is growing and not going into recession, and you can see why brands find it so attractive.”

Campaigns tend to be locally-devised rather than globally driven, she explains. And given the young population, a lot of brand communication is being done via social media. “Especially TikTok, which has been driving the event hard in the UAE and KSA.”

Local heroes

Agencies and brands are also well aware of the controversy: when we reached out to some of them for this piece, they declined to comment.

Ghada Azzi, managing editor of Lebanon-based magazine ArabAd, confirms that the criticism doesn’t seem to have impacted spending. “Nobody will walk away from football,” she says.

“Sports tourism is looking particularly lucrative. This event is expected to create plentiful business for local airlines, hotels and hospitality venues…All of this is creating a phenomenal momentum between Gulf countries.”

As elsewhere the World Cup is a powerful lure in the Middle East, she adds. “Football in this part of the world is huuuuge. It’s more than just a sport: it has a long tradition and enthusiastic supporters.

All the attention is on the games to come, the four Arab football teams participating, the players and which team will be crowned winner this year.”

Outside the Middle East, though, attitudes have ranged from ambiguous to confrontational. The UK beer brand BrewDog took the opportunity run an outdoor campaign, via Saatchi & Saatchi London, positioning itself as the “proud anti-sponsor” of the World Cup,” referring to it as “The Beautiful Shame”.

Fear of missing out

Other brands have been forced to take a more nuanced approach.

Matt Steward, CEO of UK agency Above+Beyond, says: “For sponsors and advertisers, the biggest challenge isn’t on the pitch, but in holding onto their purpose. Brand purposes are so much easier to commit to on a PowerPoint than to showcase at a multi-billion dollar global event.”

He believes there are three possible approaches for brands “woven into the commercial fabric of the World Cup”. The first is to use the backdrop of Qatar as a way to accentuate your brand purpose.

He points to Hummel, creator of the Danish national team’s kit, which muted the badges of both the team and the brand itself as they “do not want to be visible” during the tournament.

The second option is to “boycott and bemoan” the event. “It’s a very tough call, and it does seem to be happening rather quietly and softly. A notable exception is ING – they sponsor Holland and Belgium – who rejected tickets to the matches and the opportunity to promote off the back of the event in any way.”

Fear of missing out may prevent other brands from following suit, he adds. “Think of all those moments that could augment and elevate your brand story and its allure to millions of people.”

The third – and quite common – stance is to “ignore and appease”, he concludes. “After all, football is a sport of the people and politics should not feature in this particular plutocracy. It’s about the fans, the feeling, the fanfare. Brands don’t pick the host nation.”

Unfortunately, he says, FIFA brought politics front and centre when it elected Russia and Qatar as World Cup hosts. But he observes: “There is a precedent for host nation scrutiny to be washed away once the football starts and iconic moments of mass jubilation and brilliance emerge. That happened in Russia 2018, widely held up as a great footballing tournament.”

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