Brand Neymar scores with Brazil’s emerging consumers
Footballer’s humble origins and playful style endear him to ordinary Brazilians
A mural showing Brazilian footballer Neymar and Angenor de Oliveira, known as Cartola, a Brazilian singer and composer (1908-1980) at the Terreirao do Samba (Samba Land), in Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Marcelo Sayao/EPA
In a huge shopping mall just off São Paulo’s main drag 18-year old delivery boy Clayton Neves is spending some of his lunch hour checking out Brazil football tops.
Earning just above Brazil’s minimum wage, one will cost him around a week’s salary. But he has already decided he must have one before the World Cup and already knows which name he would like printed on its back. “Neymar’s of course,” he smiles, his two sparkling ear studs and tipped-up baseball cap marking him out as a follower of Brazilian street style funk ostentação (ostentatious funk) just like his footballing hero.
With the build-up to the World Cup reaching its peak, Neymar jr is everywhere in Brazil. Every night seems to have an interview with the 22-year- old forward on TV.
He graces the cover of this month’s local edition of Vogue with model Gisele Bündchen and currently appears in what feels like every third ad across the country. Readers of the country’ s celebrity magazines avidly following his relationship with Bruna Marquezine, a young soap opera star who currently holds the title of Brazil’s sweetheart.
In part this is because any player expected to lead Brazil’s assault on another world title inevitably becomes the focus of intense attention. This is even truer when he does so with a sense of daring, improvisation and fun that recalls the best of Brazil’s football traditions.
In a country where fans often lament how European clubs train the magic out of the Brazilian talent they snap up at ever younger ages, Neymar first made his name winning a hatful of titles in Santos’s most glorious run since Pelé was leading its line, before his move to Barcelona last year.
Brazilian fans feel they know him. “It is not just that he is the best footballer on the team,” says Clayton. “He’s a joker both on and off the pitch. He didn’t become one of those players who after they become stars get all self-important. He’s a cool guy of course, but also always ready to dance!”
This appeal has helped turn Neymar into a marketing phenomenon. “He is a hugely charismatic kid with an easy smile who personifies the image of the happy Brazilian, the kid who plays a joyful football, which makes him very interesting to companies,” says Rafael Plastina, a Brazilian sports marketing analyst.
From a humble background, and as one who still wears the clothing and listens to the sounds of the country’s urban periphery, Neymar is especially attractive to firms seeking to reach the country’s emerging consumer class, tens of millions of people lifted out of poverty in the last decade who are now a major driver of the economy.
But his marketing appeal is not just his background or skills on the pitch. “His career has coincided with a professionalisation of sports marketing in Brazil, which is far behind that in the US and Europe,” says Plastina. “And Neymar has been very careful about managing his image. He knows how to take advantage of it. He has been a pioneer here for example in having a presence online, on social media, Youtube. In terms of his image he is highly professional.”
This has made him fabulously wealthy at a young age, but at times he has been accused of pushing his marketing ambitions too far, like when he seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time in Barcelona’s defeat to Atletico Madrid in the Champions League wandering the pitch with his shirt hitched up, prominently revealing the logo on his underpants, which just happened to be provided by one of his 11 sponsors.
It was not his first controversy in Spain. His father, who closely controls his business affairs, has been accused of financial chicanery during his negotiation of his son’s transfer to Barcelona. That deal led to the fall of the Catalan club’s president and an ugly war of words between Neymar sr and Santos.
He has also been attacked in Brazil for contracting a marketing agency to develop the campaign #We Are All Monkeys, in response to the incident in Spain when a fan threw a banana at his Brazil and Barcelona colleague Daniel Alves, who promptly ate it.
“This campaign, developed by a marketing agency that looks after his image, just banalises and depoliticises the fight against racism,” says anti-racism campaigner Ana Maria Gonçalves. “This is about promoting his image rather than attempting to tackle racism. Why did he go to a marketing company rather than engage with the racial equality movement?”
For campaigners like Gonçalves, the case is indicative of modern Brazil. Neymar represents a young generation of confident Brazilians who have experienced increased prosperity but nonetheless are increasingly depoliticised.
This has been tracked in changing musical tastes. A decade ago rap with a strong political message was hugely popular among Brazil’s poor urban youth.
But with recent prosperity has come the rise of funk ostentação, with its worship of brand names and marked disinterest in rap’s preoccupations with police violence, racism and social inequality.
“Funk ostentação equates citizenship with what you can consume,” says Luiz Felipe Bueno, a black rights campaigner with UNEafro.
“It is the conquest of society by the power of consumerism. Happiness now is about what you can buy, not about improving yourself or getting an education.”