29 January 2020
Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Vitaly Mutko in a World Cup 2018 press conference. Photo: Reuters
Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Vitaly Mutko in a World Cup 2018 press conference. Photo: Reuters

Battle of the Brands: Who’ll be the winners of Russia 2018?

With football’s World Cup a matter of weeks away the world’s attention has already started shifting towards Russia, with all eyes increasingly focused on the likes of Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium and Saransk’s Mordovia Arena.

The Luzhniki is an iconic venue; home to the controversial 1980 Olympic Games, and more recently used for the 2008 UEFA Champions League Final and the 2013 World Athletics Championship.

As such, the stadium is a brand in its own right: an event destination, a symbol of Russia’s sporting ambitions, and a modernized vision of Soviet Union era national muscularity. For many people across the world, Brand Luzhniki makes promises that it inevitably keeps.

For that matter, so does Brand Moscow: beautiful yet troubling; synonymous with the poetry of Pushkin and the politics of Putin; a symbol of both communism and subsequent oligarch-led excess.

As for Saransk and its new arena, it remains to see what the brands are, what they stand for, and how Russia will promote them. The same too can be said for many of the other host venues we will presumably become familiar with in the coming weeks.

Right now, Russia needs some positive brand exposure, and a level of consumer recall that casts it as a good host and an important global citizen. After all, the country’s branding in recent years has seen it being internationally cast as antagonistic, unpredictable and threatening.

This may not be something that particularly bothers Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. After all, the visible elements associated with Russia’s branding of the tournament seem to have been targeted at an internal audience. For example, the World Cup poster apparently harks back to a golden era in Soviet bloc history, rather than being an open-armed welcome to the world.

Yet Russia’s battle with its brand is not the only such contest taking place this summer. Indeed, the World Cup can be characterized as a dense network of confrontations that extends from training shoes and retailers to players and their national teams.

In simple terms, a brand is a name, a symbol, a design, possibly even a noise or a smell that identifies and differentiates a product from other products. The purpose of branding is to build engagement with a target audience, in order that messages can be communicated to them. Sometimes this is done for commercial purposes; though it can also be political, especially when it is connected to a country and its soft power influence.

The biggest brand battles inevitably suggest, for example, the likes of Nike versus Adidas, as both look towards locking-down a single brand Final, ideally where the star players from each team are product endorsers for the same brand. Try thinking in terms of Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal playing Brazil and Neymar going head-to-head in the competition’s final game in Moscow, and you can see what brands such as Nike will already be thinking.

For every Ronaldo, there’s a Lionel Messi wearing Adidas (and playing for an Adidas team, in this case, Argentina). In the context of such battles, the music and imagery that accompanies both brands’ marketing activities around the event can often be key in engaging audiences (and then, potentially, getting them to spend their money on products).

The world’s consumers should therefore be vigilant to the effects that a summer soundtrack can have on their product attitudes and behaviour, especially when one finds oneself standing at a shop checkout with a credit card in the hand.

During the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the world’s attention was grabbed by ‘Jungle’ by Jamie N Commons and The X Ambassadors, though many people possibly didn’t even know it. The track accompanied an advert for Beatz by Dr Dre headphones, most notably starring Brazilian international Neymar.

Crucially, the headphone brand was not an official tournament sponsor and was instead trying to ambush the event. It succeeded, with some commentators observing that the brand had outwitted its rival. This makes it clear that the World Cup brand battlefield is not defined by rules; rather, it is defined by opportunism and creativity (though a big budget helps too).

Nowhere was this more apparent than during the UEFA Euros, staged in France during 2016. Then, British frozen food retailer Iceland humorously trolled its way through the competition, at one stage even gauding Ronaldo with targeted tweets. In this case, however, no mega-bucks investment was required, just someone social media savvy with a keen eye for mocking others.

In the constellation of brands that is the World Cup, Ronaldo is already top of the pile. He is one of the globe’s highest-paid athletes, generating among some of the largest amounts of money for his commercial partners, and ‘owns’ one of world sport’s most valuable athlete brands.

However, other athletes brands will pose a serious threat to Ronaldo’s dominance in Russia. Brand Salah has emerged from nowhere this season, as Liverpool have marched towards the UEFA Champions League Final, Egypt has qualified for the World Cup, and Mohammed Salah himself has scored freely.

Some have referred to Salah as the Islamic Messi, which conveys a very strong brand message and implies an important target market. Mo’s iconography may therefore pose a major challenge to the Portuguese, especially if Liverpool beat Ronaldo’s Real Madrid in the CL’s Final in Kiev.

Ronaldo is now in his thirties, as is his big rival Messi – they are both athlete brands that will only wane from here – even the greatest of brands can fade. One of the big opportunities in Russia will be for a new king (or kings) to ascend to world football’s commercial throne. France’s Paul Pogba has been heavily touted in this regard, in conjunction with the strategic use of Adidas and Grime music co-promotions.

Yet the big brand that emerges from the World Cup could be England’s Deli Alli or Argentina’s Paolo Dybala. This adds some intrigue to the on-field contests to come; but, as you watch, be aware too that the brand battle is also taking place on these players’ feet, in the advertising breaks during games being broadcast on television, across social media platforms, down supermarket aisles and, well, many other places. Let the confrontations begin!

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The official mascot for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia, Zabivaka, is on display near a tower of the Kremlin in central Moscow. Photo: Reuters

The stadium Mordovia Arena, which will host matches of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Saransk, Russia. Photo: Reuters

Egyptian footballer Mohamed Salah, dubbed as the Islamic Messi, is expected to ascend to world football’s commercial throne in the World Cup Russia 2018. Photo: Reuters

Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester in the UK, where he is Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Senior Fellow of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.