FIFA World Cup: Popular & Powerful…What About Purposeful?

This past month at the Lions International Festival of Creativity in Cannes,  I spoke to an industry audience about purposeful brands, a hot and buzzword laden topic in the marketing world. During the course of my talk, I offered ten perspectives on the power of purpose, one of which I would like to share: “Purpose can be unifying by bringing brands and people together.”

It was after my presentation, while watching the Portugal v. Morocco match in a room of mostly strangers—all of whom came from various corners of the globe and were rooting for different teams—that the true power of this brand came into focus: FIFA World Cup is globally unifying—or at least has the power to be. (Not to mention, it was the only gathering in Cannes where the ever-present, iconic rosé was supplanted by beer).

Unlike an explicitly purpose-driven brand such as Dove, whose clearly stated aim is “to help women everywhere develop a positive relationship with the way they look,” FIFA World Cup does not tout itself as a brand that tries to change the world through social responsibility.  Rather, FIFA takes a much more practical and prosaic approach to its mission which is, “to promote the game of football, protect its integrity and bring the game to all.”

Goal driven? Yes. Purpose-driven? Maybe. However, in “bringing the game to all,” which it has done, the World Cup has, de-facto, earned itself a spot on my list of purposeful brands. And this is why:

Consider, for a moment, that the World Cup is the most watched sporting event in the history of the world, far surpassing the Olympics. In 2014, 1 billion viewers tuned as Germany beat Argentina in final match of the tournament. To put that into perspective, the entire global population in 2014 was measured at 7.2 billion.

The statistics are particularly striking when comparing viewership of the Cup to other huge sporting events like the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics (19.8 million viewers), the (so-called) World Series (18.9 million viewers), Super Bowl LII (103.4 million viewers), and the NBA Finals (20.4 million viewers).

As a side note, those tuning into these games are doing so increasingly via internet streaming as opposed to traditional broadcasting, proving that companies like Amazon, which are acquiring streaming rights to typically broadcast events, know what they are doing…a topic I have discussed before and will again.

These numbers demonstrate the clear edge that the World Cup has on major sporting events in the United States and around the globe, and more importantly, its true globality. Viewers from all over the world not just from the countries whose teams are competing—watch the FIFA World Cup in unison (with one exception*).

*The single exception may actually be the United States, whose viewership this year has decreased by nearly 44% from the 2014 Cup, presumably because the U.S. team failed to qualify this time around. I’d like to think our relatively minimal engagement is due less to feelings of Trumpian isolationism and more to our seemingly minimal interest in soccer as a sport…and yet, what about all those soccer moms…?

Despite this, the global viewership compels me to ask, is there any other global event, global brand so unifying, uplifting, or exciting as FIFA World Cup? For a brief period, once every four years, this single event transcends the complicated, often discouraging state of geo-politics, reminding us that above being citizens of our own countries, we are all occupants of a single globe. That experience sounds pretty purposeful to me.

In fact, based on data gathered by BAV ®, Y&R’s proprietary brand measurement data tool, 59% of those under 35 consider themselves more as a citizen of the world, than as a citizen of a single nation. So, is it any surprise that an event like the World Cup, which so effectively captures the spirit of belonging, is so popular and unifying?

And speaking of unity…

This week it was announced that FIFA World Cup 2026 will be held in North America, meaning Canada, U.S. and Mexico will all share the role of host. Given the recent news which reports on the growing mistrust amongst these North American neighbors, this announcement couldn’t be more auspicious, ironic, and, dare I say…hopeful.

In a time when it seems everyone is polarized and nationalism is on the rise, let us appreciate this special game. The World Cup belongs to the people of this world. Let’s not forget, that from 1966 to 1992, the game adopted a global consciousness and banned Apartheid South Africa from participating until its discriminatory practices ended.

What makes a brand more purposeful than that? FDR has it right. Listen:

Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off – Franklin Delano Roosevelt

In the best-case scenario, competition leads to cooperation. What could be better? And in a week, when the U.S. is celebrating its independence, perhaps the World Cup will serve as a North Star for us all.

What do you think?

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