The World Cup must be imminent because the supermarket aisles have turned into obstacle courses of special-offer Pringles, Budweiser is deploying drones to deliver beer (in ads, not reality), and Zlatan Ibrahimovic is showing off his innate skills with a Visa contactless card.
Nothing says "the opening ceremony is upon us" quite like the stench of crisps, beer and footballers fronting "huh?" ads for financial services. But this World Cup is different. Since the 2014 tournament in Brazil, football's world governing body Fifa, long mired in corruption described by the US Department of Justice as "rampant, systemic and deep-rooted", has attracted a festival of indictments.
Fifa's supporters know well that the staging of this tournament in Putin's Russia, site of homophobic intolerance and frequent outbursts of "fan" racism, is the outcome of a bidding process that sparked the interest of Swiss authorities, French prosecutors and the FBI.
Do sponsors care about Fifa's brand toxicity? Sort of, yes. After the scandal unfolded, its corporate friends began to drop off, though most were coy about tying their decision to the negative headlines. Out went top-tier partners Emirates and Sony, swiftly followed by second-tier sponsors Johnson & Johnson, Castrol and Continental Tyres.
But although tarnished Fifa entered this World Cup cycle with a sponsorship bench that lacked strength-in-depth, it has been rescued in part by China. Wanda Group, the Chinese property, retail and entertainment giant (and maker of Sunseeker yachts), signed on as a top-tier partner, while the second tier has been enhanced by electronics company Hisense, smartphone sellers Vivo and dairy brand Mengniu.
Fifa's Russia 2018 partner team-sheet is as follows: Coca-Cola, Visa, Adidas and Hyundai (all veterans of Brazil 2014), plus Wanda, Russian state-controlled energy giant Gazprom and Qatar Airways, the state-owned flag carrier of the controversial 2022 tournament hosts.
Adidas’s deal runs until 2030, while Visa, Coca-Cola and Hyundai are signed up until 2022. Budweiser and McDonald’s, meanwhile, are the only survivors of the second tier of sponsors. Loyalty no longer means silence, however. In a change from previous see-no-evil form, several of these companies made public statements of distaste for Fifa at the height of the scandal.
Indeed, Visa’s disappointment and concern was “profound”.
This trend is not specific to Fifa. In 2018, if the owner of a sponsorship property misbehaves in some way, or is accused of doing so, their financial backers are much less likely to stay quiet. They cannot afford to do so. At the very least, a willingness to wander from the diplomatic party line will both take the heat off their brands mid-crisis and improve their negotiating position if they do fancy renewing their relationship.
Ethics aside, not everyone is a fan of Fifa-style deals. According to marketing news site The Drum, former Paddy Power Betfair "head of mischief" Ken Robertson says any chief marketing officer that coughs up tens of millions annually to Fifa "should be shot".
While we can only cross our fingers in the hope of making it to the end of Russia 2018 without anyone being shot, Robertson’s point is forcefully made: “I think it is an appalling waste of money. It is a wallpaper logo. People expect more from brands now than seeing them on the perimeter boards during a major event. These partnerships show a lack of imagination and even some insecurity from the brand.”
Those who have paid up would doubtless disagree, especially as the World Cup ranks among a dwindling supply of appointment-to-view TV events. Evidence of football fatigue has been thin to date, and in Ireland (where RTÉ's coverage is sponsored by Avantcard, Hyundai and Remus Uomo this year), average per-match viewing figures for Brazil 2014 were up a staggering 28 per cent on vuvuzela-laden South Africa 2010.
Paddy Power Betfair has spent much of the past week going through the motions of a hoax non-stunt involving – or rather not involving – a polar bear, a tranquilliser and some red spray paint. (It’s best not to ask.)
There are more straightforward ways for big brands to attach themselves to the World Cup: Nike’s high-profile but Fifa-free approach has been to sponsor as many of the participating teams as possible. In Brazil, the US sportswear giant even managed to eclipse German arch-rival Adidas, clothing 10 teams compared to Adidas’s nine, though for Russia, the score has been reversed, with Adidas winning 12-10.
Within the sponsorship industry, the mantra is that it is not the deal itself that counts, but how it is activated. Perhaps some of Fifa’s blue-chip financiers will marry their unimaginative partnerships with some bicycle-kick marketing goals. But by playing it safe with top-level sponsorships, they have ironically opened themselves up to the risk that the feel-bad factor around Russia 2018 will rub off on them. It could be a sweaty month ahead.