Posted by - Whitestone International

Supporting the case for the FIFA Women’s World Cup positioning in 2000 couldn’t be based on the traditional drivers of value at the time – $ rights value and participation levels. We needed to turn to the ‘brand’ and brand equity to validate why it had to have the same status as the men’s.”

Prompted by the upcoming FIFA Women’s World Cup, our CEO Chris Lightfoot reflects on his personal experiences working with both the men’s and women’s FIFA World Cup brands, how the industry has evolved, the need for strategic and creative innovation and where it needs to start heading.


The first revolution

The first revolution started when João Havelange became FIFA President having made campaign promises that had to be supported by commercial income on a scale that had never been seen before. Turning to Horst Dassler and Patrick Nally, who brought Stu Cross in from Coca-Cola, what happened next is considered by many to have initiated a wave of thinking that gave rise to a new generation of sports business founded on creating and commercialising rights.

At the time, the approach taken by the FIFA team was innovative, much like the foundations set by Mark McCormack at IMG, and it shaped the sports industry that we know today. As always though, things change. With ever increasing competition, more sophisticated businesses, experiences, stakeholders and fans, taking the industry to the next level means always innovating.

What’s driving innovation

A key driving force behind the need for innovation is the marked change in people’s attitudes and behaviours. In no small part this can be attributed to the technological and communications revolution we are living in, along with our exposure and access to ever more stimulating experiences directly competing for our time and money – both within and outside of sports. Seismic shifts in the public’s attitudes to entertainment, and value, are leading to ever-rising levels of expectation and new patterns of behaviour – the only response can be one of investment and innovation to keep on top. In the increasingly competitive and commoditised landscape of sports and sponsorship markets, it would be naïve to assume that what created success in the past will do so in the future and that the industry’s lucrative position can be sustained without adapting to continuous social and cultural changes, and consumer expectations.

One of the biggest differences between sports and other industries is the level of continuous investment and inward innovation in their products and brands. That’s not to say sports is without innovation. In fact it’s one the greatest sectors for innovation and engagement. But more innovation is required, not just around the sports and events themselves, but in the brands they create and how they are defined and built to connect and engage fans personally, socially and culturally. And this innovation needs to be driven centrally by the IFs and NGBs in order to fulfil their core mandate of nurturing and growing their sport.

Investment in innovation

When the first major wave of investment and innovation in sports occurred in the 1990s, I was lucky enough to be working alongside FIFA, ATP, FIBA and others, witnessing first hand the significant strides taken in creating a mixture of internal innovation around sports, the pooling and packaging of rights, and substantial investment in brand strategies and branding. This model set a clear direction for the future. The brand strategy and branding was structured to not only challenge the norm, but importantly, to create assets and intellectual property rights that had significant commercial value and leverage.

At the heart of the first revolution, Patrick Nally and others recognised that sporting properties and major events were under capitalised, so they set about developing a new competitive landscape and fresh thinking was specifically mandated of FIFA’s then marketing partner ISL. Investment and innovation followed numerous forms and our team at Interbrand, where it all started, was focussed on generating greater value through the FIFA and the FIFA World Cup brands through the strategy and branding.

Before we began, the LOCs were national, self funding and largely viewed FIFA as administrators, providers of referees and commercial competitors to their own marketing programmes. This was hard-wired. The time was ripe for strategic, creative and commercial innovation and our work was matched by those who managed the rights relationships. Whilst much has moved on since, the original model we put in place has not substantially changed and many follow a similar strategy even now.

A shift in thinking

The FIFA World Cup 2002 in Korea and Japan and FIFA Women’s World Cup 2003 in the USA represented the first major step changes for FIFA on so many levels. These opportunities created a new desire for the brand and branding to be something more significant than the former location-date-sport formula. The brand strategy and indeed the identity and branding itself shifted from being ephemeral concepts and became fundamental to the common good, multiplicity of relationships and commercial success; to the whole sport.

The FIFA Women’s World Cup

Perhaps not surprisingly for the time and given the huge difference in participation and commercial value, establishing a similar strategy for the FIFA Women’s World Cup as the men’s was challenging. However, after some good debates – and to FIFA’s credit and advanced thinking – it was agreed that both would carry an equal brand status.

Supporting the case for the FIFA Women’s World Cup positioning holding the same status as the men’s was deep and involved. It couldn’t be based on traditional $ value drivers, participation, or audience numbers and reach in 2000. We needed to turn to the ‘brand’ and brand equity. The creative strategy, which had the FIFA Women’s World Cup Trophy at its heart (and is still in place today) was the catalyst; it brought the idea to life and fuelled the debate.

Several aspects of what the brand should stand for were evaluated and debated. They included for example the vision for football, women’s sport as a whole, social and cultural drivers, and the FIFA brand to name a few. Investment and innovation were also central to the discussion and both the business case and the long-term value of the brand featured. On the brand side, brand equity metrics were central to assessing not only the sporting and social value of the brand, but as a method of assessing the brand’s future commercial architecture and value. Among the key brand equity metrics was ‘status’.

The status of a sports competition brand is defined by numerous criteria including its purpose and standing within the sport, values of the sport and competition, its heritage, its value to competing teams and athletes, its reach, exposure and audience profiles, etc. Evaluating these alone created a strong case for the FIFA Women’s World Cup brand to carry the same status as the men’s. Other metrics such as ‘association’, ‘attachment’, ‘attitudes and trends’ were also evaluated. The outcome is plain to see, and with women’s sport rightly seeing a meteoric rise these last few years, it turned out to be a wise social, sporting and commercial decision.

The FIFA World Cup Trophy strategy

The FIFA World Cup 2002 and FIFA Women’s World Cup 2003 would be the first to deliver the ‘FIFA World Cup Trophy’ strategy and carry the FIFA name in the title. In the case of the FIFA World Cup 2002 in Korea and Japan, we had the additional challenge of reflecting and satisfying both co-hosts and simultaneously engaging two non-traditional football audiences – full stadia and a vibrant atmosphere were paramount – as well as the event IP needing to create new rights whilst avoid diluting others. And beyond the occasion itself, the strategy had to be enduring and relevant for future events.

When it came to the FIFA World Cup 2006 in Germany, I had started Whitestone International, and my team was hired to balance FIFA’s strategy and champion a narrative driven by Franz Bechambauer. Bechambauer had seen the success of 2002 and wanted to go beyond the ‘safe’ event that Germany could doubtless deliver; beyond the stereotypes and be “un-German”. Working with Bechambauer, the LOC, FIFA Marketing and local design agency Abold, the narrative was built around the emotion of German football and although it would take the German public a couple of years to understand the kind of event that was being planned, Germany went on to deliver one of the best FIFA World Cups to date.

Reflecting on how FIFA has since evolved the FIFA World Cup brand strategy and branding, by 2010 in South Africa, a monolithic structure had been introduced across FIFA’s properties – one that encompassed even its pinnacle event and provided the local organisers with only a central piece to make their mark. By 2014 the event identity reverted to the ‘FIFA World Cup Trophy’ strategy from 2002, with 2018 continuing the legacy. What does this signify about the FIFA World Cup? Will 2022 and even beyond continue to look back rather than advance forward?

It is time to re-evaluate the strategy. Given that football is a global sport, is there a need for geographical pioneering? Are there other formats that will appeal to different demographics? Could every FIFA World Cup be different – allowing each new event the opportunity to bravely progress its messaging, branding and presentation, thereby developing new narratives that deepen the sport’s impact and potential? Given technological and cultural shifts, perhaps the time has come to challenge everything?

Brand innovation and investment

The pace of change socially, technologically and in media is frenetic. We await the next big thing as quickly as we discard the recently new, now suddenly prehistoric. The never-ending appetite for sports, both new and traditional, has to be served to multi-screen audiences with each interface providing more connecting, engaging and experiential added value to the fans and greater brand and commercial returns to stakeholders.

The case for investment in the business, and in particular innovation in the brand and branding, is unequivocally a strong one. Revenues of sports brands that invest in innovative strategies, ever-evolving identities and creative expression, outstrip those that don’t.

It’s easy for an event – particularly a global one – to prioritise infrastructure development over the need to evolve the brand and branding infrastructures. Yet, a strategy that “worked last time” can seriously hinder creativity and innovation across all aspects of the occasion. Each event brand must be built from the ground up through a mix of its unique short, medium and long-term objectives.

The bottom line

Whilst the catalyst may be the staging of a global event, the brand strategy (aligned with the commercial strategy and engagement models) is fundamental in attracting partners and building long-lasting commercial relationships. Commercial brands understand how to evolve alongside changing consumer behaviours and recognise the need for investment in innovation. More so than ever before, they want to know that sports brands are taking the same approach and that the commercial objectives of the brand are as embedded in the event as the social, political and sporting ones.

To meet the changing social, commercial and media landscapes, IFs and NGBs need to focus on innovation and use bold strategic and creative thinking. No panacea exists other than hard work and continual evolution, both of which involve the brand as a core asset and sporting, business and social tool. With the right expertise and capabilities, the process of insight, development and innovation will usher in a new wave of thinking to rival the strategic revolutions of the past and further elevate sports business to the highest level.