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The World Cup marketing battle between Nike and Adidas teaches us that brands should focus on content creation

The World Cup amplified the quintessential argument in marketing: Whether it is more effective to pay for sponsorship rights or to ambush the events through the creation of relevant content.

Antonio Lucio

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In addition to its many other accomplishments, the 20101 South Africa World Cup was the most digitally engaged sports event in history. For one month, the world became a village connected through the threads of a common passion—the most global and democratic of all sports.

Consumers watched the games on multiple platforms, commenting instantly with friends and fans on anything and everything while getting backroom stories from content providers and other fans. Never before or in such a grand scale did the multiple screen engagement models became so real as during the World Cup. Numbers for Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were at all time highs. ESPN, its website and its mobile apps also showed remarkable ratings.

The World Cup digital buzz amplified the quintessential argument in marketing: Whether it is more effective to officially play in these spaces through the payment of sponsorship rights or to ambush the events through the creation of relevant but unofficial communication. In no battle did the dimensions of sponsorship marketing become more evident than in the Adidas-Nike World Cup battle to become the premier global brand of football gear.

Most research reveals that consumers feel closer to brands that are present within spaces that are meaningful to their lives, such as music, arts, entertainment and sports. An association to causes or passion points can augment brand image and preference, but emotional and visual associations alone do not build preference. Great brands provide utility first. Sponsorships just become great amplifiers.

Sponsorships are assets if they are relevant to the brand promise, its consumers and if the sponsorship is unique and memorable ways that deliver against defined business objectives. As amplifiers of the brand strategy, sponsorships must deliver two objectives: drive revenue growth and build differentiation and brand equity among key customers.

Adidas was an official sponsor of the World Cup. As such it had the right to claim official brand status in all its advertising and to produce and commercialize the official tournament ball. Adidas also had its name in the field boards of all games. For those rights, brands pay a price contingent upon the perceived commercial value of the property.

Brands like Adidas also pay teams and athletes to wear their merchandise. Through these agreements they acquire image rights to players and teams for TV and digital media productions. Adidas capitalized on its official status to launch new shoes and official gear, using mostly TV advertising to drive consumer interaction to their digital platform.

Nike played it different. They were not official sponsors of the World Cup, but through their teams (Holland, Portugal and Brazil, to name a few) and athletes (Ronaldo and Kaka, for example) they were “unofficially” present. Nike became the traditional ambush marketer who implies official status through content creation. I mean, who can forget those neon orange-colored shoes? Adidas may have been on the field boards, but Nike’s distinctive neon was in every slow motion shot where it counted, on the athletes’ feet.

Nike also took advantage of the digital phenomenon and produced a three-minute movie under the theme Write the Future, featuring the Nike stars. The company encouraged engagement by allowing consumers to edit the video and compete for popularity in social networks. The video received 20 million hits in just 30 days.

So who won the World Cup of marketing in the sports gear category? According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review faculty blog, both brands achieved about $1.7 billion in revenues during the World Cup—about 30 percent of the sportswear market. However, Nike had twice the consumer buzz and engagement as Adidas, a significant disparity. Only time will tell whether this difference will translate into long-term gains, but there is a significant body of research that suggests it will.

At the end of the day, both brands derived strong benefits from their association with the many dimensions of the World Cup. The Nike brand equity victory cannot be attributed to its unofficial or ambush status but rather to its superior content creation and its ability to maximize all available opportunities in memorable and unique ways. That is the marketing truth that will transcend the World Cup.

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