Nike, Adidas and the Sports Branding World Cup

Over the last decade, major tournaments have become as much a showcase for sports brands and product placement as they have for the sport itself. Billboards are adorned with new footwear, energy drinks and more as brands attempt to tap into the national anticipation of a World Cup. The marketing usually employs exoticism based on the host nation to lure in the public combined with recognisable footballers.  This year, Lucozade have added a Brazilian twist with a new guava flavoured drink, while Pepsi’s latest ad sees Messi, Aguero et al. joshing around to a backdrop of favela-chic.

However, the major battle for brand supremacy is always fought between the superpowers of Nike and Adidas. They want the World Cup winners to be wearing their shirts on the podium, and scoring goals in their boots. Nike’s advertising went through something of a golden age around 15 years ago and their new material is usually worth watching. It probably started with the Seleçao at the airport ahead of France 1998. In 2002, the Scorpion Football campaign ushered in a new era of the mega-advert. Terry Gilliam was given a multi-million dollar budget to direct the memorable promo using the concept of a knock-out cage tournament. Finally, Thierry Henry’s “Sorry Boss” ad had an element of humour that few adverts are really able to capture.

In their new campaign, both Nike and Adidas have used a similar premise; this is very much the individual over the collective and the idea that one player is capable of lifting his side to the next level. This is part of football’s “cult of self”, where the players with the greatest will to succeed to do through a combination of ability and selfishness. Oddly, this style is reminiscent of an old Guinness advert in which a hurling player is promised a “hero’s welcome” if he scores the winning points.

Nike’s 2014 advert is superficial at best. A group of boys playing a game of park football, transform into their idols (Ronaldo, Neymar etc.) whilst showing off the latest sports range. It’s fun, if a little ridiculous, but lacks the originality of their back catalogue. The short ends with one of the boys scoring a penalty while the world watches on, as we are told emphatically to “Risk Everything”, Nike’s slogan for this summer. There’s not much more to it than that, other than reinforcing Nike’s traditional mantra that the winner will take it all.

This is disappointing because their ad for the last World Cup managed to imply this same message a lot more astutely. Vacuously entitled “Write the Future”, the ad shows a series of imagined World Cup moments with two possible outcomes. It illustrates the dichotomy between hero and villain that is created from individual on-pitch moments and also brings in some of the wider political context in which the game is played.

For example, a misplaced pass from Wayne Rooney that results in a Franck Ribery winner against England not only leads to personal misery but national catastrophe as the stock market crashes. There are hints at civil disorder, eerily similar to the 2011 London riots that would take place the following summer. The alternative version sees Rooney sprint back to tackle Ribery and, we can assume, lead England to glory. Rooney is knighted, the economy booms and a generation of babies are named ‘Wayne’. Thus we are reminded that football is a zero sum game in more ways than one; a players’ action will simultaneously catapult his own name into stardom whilst ruining his rivals’ reputation but these events also have the capacity to influence the nation in a manner of ways.

Adidas’ latest effort is captivating for similar reasons. Artistically it pays homage to the 2006 film Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, where the camera followed the player for 90 minutes.  This focus on a single player emphasises the pressures that rest on their shoulders. The main man in the campaign is Messi and it is hard to think of a player with more expectation to deliver at this World Cup, other than possibly Neymar. The ‘cult of self’ is also reinforced by the soundtrack. A new track entitled “God Level” by Kanye West (perhaps one of  the greatest egoists ever), hints at an elevation to god-like status that a World Cup-winner would enjoy.

Despite these common themes, the Adidas ad seems more pertinent because it is framed with a measure of socio-political awareness. As Messi arrives in Brazil, he is greeted with abuse from a young group of boys and a gaggle of journalists; the reception from locals and the media alike will be hostile. As the beat in West’s track builds tension with a whining crescendo that sounds like a siren, a flurry of on-pitch clips flash across the screen until a brief scene shows mounted police keeping a group of Brazilian protesters at bay. It is this image that is most intriguing because it shows Adidas have acknowledged that this World Cup might be greater than what takes place simply in the stadia.

We go into this tournament with a sense of unknowing. To what extent will this undercurrent of unrest bubble over the surface once the World Cup is up and running? Would a Brazilian triumph be able to unite the nation and quell some of the protests? Neither Nike nor Adidas has an interest in making an overtly political statement ahead of the big event and their primary concern is market supremacy. However, these corporations are now able to garner so much influence through football as an ultra-globalized form of mass culture, they may feel some sense of paternalist responsibility. Judging by their latest efforts, it seems like Adidas have considered this to a greater degree than Nike.

Posted by Hugo Greenhalgh

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