With the 2018 FIFA World Cup taking place against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world, a world where people increasingly expect corporations to stand for something more than just profits, it seems like an appropriate time to take a look at which World Cup sponsors are leaning into this cultural tension and activating their sponsorships in a purposeful way.

Few dispute that the Beautiful Game is the leader in global sports when it comes to the numbers. According to Nielsens 2018 Global Football Report, more people play and watch soccer than any other sport in the world with +40% indicating that they are either interested or very interested in the sport. Although the average global football fan is a well educated, married, 25-34 year-old male, over a third of all fans are now female. Football fans outscore the average person in terms of media consumption and intended purchases meaning they are a more valuable target market to sponsors and marketers. In terms of reach and relevance, soccer as an engagement platform is a consumer marketer’s dream. In terms of fan passion, soccer is unparalleled.

The World Cup is staged every four years by FIFA, the global governing body of the sport with a membership of 211 national football governing associations that FIFA supports financially and logistically through various programs. FIFA has seen its fair share of scandals in recent years which has negatively impacted its public reputation and perceived value to the world as highlighted in enso’s World Value Index where FIFA ranked only 151 out of 200 brands surveyed (Disclosure: enso is a strategic partner of my firm Purpose+Sport). As a result, FIFA have found the going tough in filling their sponsorship portfolio with the typical types of brands associated with the World Cup.

In an effort to become more purposeful, FIFA recently launched its FIFA Foundation through which it is directing its investment in the growing the game and facilities available for soccer at a community level. The Foundation is hosting the FIFA Foundation Festival in Red Square in Moscow during 2018 FIFA World and will bring young representatives from 48 non-governmental organizations from 38 countries to the 2018 FIFA World Cup to exchange, learn and play football as a continuation of a concept that started in Germany at the 2006 FIFA World Cup.

The Soccer For Good Community is rapidly gaining traction.

Existing in parallel to the formal FIFA structures is the Soccer For Good community which is rapidly gaining traction as the number and proficiency of organizations using soccer as a platform to deliver positive social outcomes grows the world over. Foremost amongst these organizations is streetfootballworld, the unofficial governing body of Soccer For Good that represents the collective interests of over 130 organizations around the world doing the most important work in this space. (Disclosure: My firm, Purpose+Sport, are advisors to both streetfootballworld and their initiative Common Goal). Streetfootballworld members address a wide range of social issues including those covered by many of the Sustainable Development Goals including Goals 1,3,4,5,8,10,16 and 17 positively and directly impacting the lives of over 2.5 million young people each year through soccer (Ref: infographic below from streetfootballworld’s 2016 annual report)

In short, the ecosystem exists for those sponsors wanting to leverage and amplify their organizational purpose through their soccer sponsorships.

It is therefore not that surprising to see a trend-setting brand like Coca-Cola be the first to add a layer of meaning, or purpose, to their sponsorship of 2018 FIFA World Cup. Through its Pass The Happiness initiative, Coca-Cola has partnered with Walmart, One World Play Project – a leading soccer for good B Corporation operating in the informal soccer for good sector – and celebrity Jason Derulo to donate 100 000 “unpoppable” soccer balls to Soccer For Good organizations in multiple local markets. It’s a great example of how a FIFA World Cup Sponsor has partnered with an informal sector soccer for good organization and a retail partner to establish a partnership around the World Cup that is being leveraged through a purposeful lens. (Disclosure: I was involved in seeding the initial vision with Coca-Cola that evolved into the Pass The Happiness partnership while Chief Catalyst at One World Play Project)

Coca-Cola followed up Pass The Happiness with an insightful response following Sweden’s game against Germany when one of the Swedish players, Jimmy Durmaz, received an onslaught of racial abuse on his social media channels. As Brad Ross, Director of Global Football Marketing at Coca-Cola so aptly commented, “It was truly sad to see this level and type of abuse he received. But humanity came to the table, and started the #backadurmazmovement. One of our brands core values is inclusivity – I am so proud of how Coca-Cola responded to this with purpose and a strong point of view”.

Another major global brand that has attempted to use their association with soccer in a purposeful way around World Cup time is MasterCard. Although not a FIFA World Cup sponsor, MasterCard – a long time sponsor of soccer through events like the UEFA Champions League and previously FIFA – tried to capitalize on the 2018 World Cup through their association with football through their Food For Goals campaign. Their effort committed the brand to donate the equivalent of 10,000 meals to the World Food Programme for children in Latin America for every goal scored by Lionel Messi and Neymar in the World Cup, two of the tournament’s biggest stars. This well intentioned effort from MasterCard unfortunately backfired being seen as self-serving by many fans. It also hasn’t helped that at the halfway stage, Messi and Neymar have scored far fewer goals than expected.

Brands are not the only ones who have the opportunity to lead efforts to activate purposefully during World Cup time. Common Goal – a streetfootballworld initiative created to empower soccer players to donate at least 1% of their salary to Soccer For Good programs – is leveraging the star power of some of the players that have signed up to Common Goal, like Manchester United and World Cup Champion Juan Mata, to run fundraising campaigns with Facebook to engage fans is doing good through football. Streetfootballworld also recently launched Play Proud – an initiative focused on creating safe places for LGBT youth to play – to coincide with the World Cup and Pride Month and have partnered with FOX Sports who will be profiling stories connected to Play Proud during their coverage of World Cup in the USA.

In a world where fans expect corporations to stand for something more than just profits, it is hugely surprising that only 1 of the 12 sponsors of the 2018 FIFA World Cup have activated their sponsorships more purposefully.

What is hugely surprising for me is that, to the best of my knowledge, only one of the 12 2018 FIFA World Cup sponsors have embraced the opportunity to do good and do well through their sponsorship activation . In a world where, as per enso’s 2018 World Value Index, 81% of people believe that business can be a positive force for social and environmental change this seems like a lost opportunity. If there are others and I just haven’t seen them – despite digging for them – please let me know. Is this because the event is taking place in Russia – a market where the “for good” sector is not well developed, because the US Men’s Team did not qualify, because of concerns around the public perceptions of FIFA …..or is it because the World Cup sponsors have been caught napping and have not yet understood the changing world around them, where what you stand for is as important as what you sell?

Things are thankfully changing for the better outside of the 2018 FIFA World Cup environment and this bodes well for the future of purposeful activation of soccer. A number of football governing bodies have recently launched initiatives focused on leveraging their platform to address important social issues. UEFA’s Together #WePlayStrong, MLS’s #SoccerForAll and the FA’s Football For All initiaves, all focused on building stronger sense of community and access to soccer for all, particularly girls, are examples. Qatar 2022’s Generation Amazing initiative and the USA/Mexico/Canada 2026 World Cup Organising Committee’s focus on legacy and sustainability are also showing signs of progress and are both commitments that will provide World Cup sponsors with interesting opportunities to activate purposefully. And some of the big soccer clubs are moving in the right direction too as evidenced by the commitments being made in the soccer for good space by an increasing number of clubs including the likes of City Football Group, Real Madrid, Portland Timbers and Common Goal’s first soccer club member, Danish Superleague club, FC Nordsjælland.

So, while sponsors of this year’s FIFA World Cup have definitely missed out on an opportunity to leverage their sponsorships purposefully and connect with the fans in a meaningful and relevant way, I predict that the next two World Cups will be a very different affair when it comes to purposeful activation of soccer sponsorships.

As the saying goes…… “Time to get in the game” World Cup Sponsors.