Business Day

Brands cannot afford to ignore Qatar’s tarnished World Cup

• When there is an audience of 5-billion, advertiser­s will pay to reach them

- Simone Foxman and Alex Webb

There has already never been a World Cup quite like Qatar 2022, which has just started. Human rights groups are in uproar over everything from the treatment of LGBTQ people in a country where homosexual­ity is illegal to the deaths of stadium constructi­on workers .

Organiser Fifa is recovering from corruption scandals that cast aspersions on how Qatar was awarded the competitio­n to begin with. Erstwhile Fifa chief Sepp Blatter said he regretted that the Gulf country was picked as host.

But for all the hand-wringing over the quadrennia­l tournament, the World Cup could still attract 5-billion viewers almost two-thirds of the planet’s population. And when there’s an audience, brands will pay to reach them.

Bloomberg News contacted 76 companies sponsoring either the tournament or the teams taking part. They ranged from Adidas and Coca-Cola to Volkswagen and Microsoft’s Xbox, and were based in places where human rights criticism was widespread the US, Canada and in Europe.

None of the seven Fifa sponsors said they would make any changes to their global advertisin­g plans to reflect concerns for human rights.

Of the 69 sponsors of national teams, 20 responded to express their commitment to human rights, though declined to disclose if or how their marketing might change. Thirteen companies did say they would make adjustment­s, though few have significan­t business ties to Qatar. They include Danish brewer Carlsberg, Belgian chocolatie­r Cote d’Or and the Belgian business of accountanc­y firm PwC.

Qatar 2022 is arguably the most scrutinise­d World Cup in history, and executives are faced with a dilemma as pundits and politician­s raise concerns over the host country. Yet financiall­y it’s a nobrainer: the potential to get hundreds of millions of eyeballs on a logo or marketing slogan during a troubled time for the global economy.

The tournament, which has started in November for the first time to avoid the summer heat, is expected to deliver record revenue for Fifa, topping the $5.4bn the 2018 World Cup in Russia generated, Bloomberg reported last week.

“The public has become much more vocal about human rights than it was five or 10 years ago,” said Sarah Simon, a European media analyst at Berenberg Bank in London. “But it’s a one-in-four-year opportunit­y, so advertiser­s who advertise around the World Cup want to make the most of it.”

With audiences fleeing traditiona­l broadcaste­rs for online streaming services, sport remains one of the last bastions of live television viewing. The Olympics, Super Bowl and World Cup are some of the few occasions where brands can be counted on to pay big bucks to reach a live audience, giving them outsize importance to TV advertisin­g revenue.


The economic slump, meanwhile, has prompted brands to curb their marketing. They will spend an estimated $90bn less on advertisin­g this year and next than previously expected, according to data company WARC.

That makes the World Cup a timely bright spot — regardless of the controvers­y. The boost from the tournament is likely to offset the advertisin­g market’s broader weakness.

“For all of the controvers­y around the World Cup, it couldn’t be coming at a better

time for broadcaste­rs,” said

Matthew Bloxham, a Bloomberg Intelligen­ce media analyst.

“Their advertisin­g revenues are facing tough headwinds, and this will ease some of the pain.”

To say it’s a normal World Cup for advertiser­s and sponsors would be wrong, though. Many brands backing the Danish, Belgian and Dutch teams said they were not going to make use of ticket allocation­s for matches.

Carlsberg said it had halved its marketing budget compared with last year when Denmark played in the European Football Championsh­ip. It is focused on supporting the team before it goes to Qatar, a spokespers­on said. “Once the tournament starts, we have scaled back compared to what we would normally do,” she said.

Cote d’Or said executives would not attend the World Cup or give tickets to customers, even though the brand is part of food distributo­r Mondelez Internatio­nal, whose products are readily found on Qatari grocery store shelves. PwC’s Belgian arm is doing likewise, while the company has a big presence in Qatar.

Companies will monitor the popular mood as the tournament unfolds towards the December 18 final. If the volume of criticism mounts, then some may think twice about continuing with campaigns that have been months in the planning, according to Martin Sorrell, the veteran British advertisin­g executive who is now chair of digital ad agency S4 Capital.

The experience of British brewer BrewDog shows some of the pitfalls in trying to go the other way. The company decided to tap into some of the negative sentiment towards Qatar, running what it calls an “anti-World F*Cup” campaign. “First Russia, then Qatar. Can’t wait for North Korea,” runs one billboard. It also pledged to donate profit from one of its beers sold during the event to human rights charities.

But no sooner had the advertisin­g campaign been unveiled, social media posts pointed out that BrewDog still planned to show matches in its bars and had signed a deal to supply beer to Qatar’s government-owned distributo­r. Labour union Unite Hospitalit­y criticised how the brewer treats its own workers, labelling the campaign “disingenuo­us”. BrewDog last year apologised to former employees who accused the firm of bullying.

Then there are those that publicly support LGBTQ rights yet remain sponsors of either the tournament or Fifa itself, such as Adidas, brewing giant AB InBev, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. They defend their continued involvemen­t by pointing towards the improvemen­ts in Qatar.


The four companies told Bloomberg they believed the World Cup had brought positive changes and pointed to their support of efforts by Fifa, the Internatio­nal Labour Organizati­on and other groups. Adidas “has worked with partners to also improve the human rights situation in Qatar in recent years”, a spokespers­on said. “Adidas was not involved in the decision to award the World Cup to Qatar.”

Adidas CFO Harm Ohlmeyer told investors last week that he expects a “tailwind” of as much as €400m in sales related to the World Cup.

Qatar has made progress in some areas more than others when it comes to the complaints levelled against it. And after more than a decade under fire, the government’s patience for criticism may be wearing thin.

The country has improved living standards and safety for low-income workers and enacted labour reforms that took effect in 2021. It is the only Gulf state with a universal minimum wage and workers are now able to leave jobs more easily. Activists have acknowledg­ed these measures while highlighti­ng gaps in the system, such as a failure to stamp out predatory recruitmen­t fees for migrant workers.

The Qatari government has been less quick to tackle concerns about the treatment of LGBTQ people. Human rights groups and journalist­s say that some individual­s have reported being detained and harassed by security forces as recently as September. An internal organiser document indicates Qatar may choose not to enforce rules against promoting LGBTQ rights during the tournament.

Initially Qatar “considered some of the criticism as positive and useful in helping us to develop aspects of ours that need to be developed”, Qatar’s ruling emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani said last month. But he shot back at what he called an “unpreceden­ted campaign” full of “fabricatio­ns and double standards” with dubious motives.

The ultimate determinan­t of how enthusiast­ically brands get behind the tournament may be simply which teams progress. If their home nation advances, there is scope for opportunis­tic ad campaigns.

“Brands will look for an angle that will be able to cut through at minimum cost,” said Nick Fox, chair of advertisin­g agency Atomic in London. “Rather than paying millions of dollars for traditiona­l channels, they’ll be looking to snipe around the edges.”


 ?? /Bloomberg ?? Play or bust: Shuttle buses in the financial district of Doha, Qatar. Embattled Fifa president Gianni Infantino pushed back on Saturday against criticism of the Qatar World Cup before the tournament began.
/Bloomberg Play or bust: Shuttle buses in the financial district of Doha, Qatar. Embattled Fifa president Gianni Infantino pushed back on Saturday against criticism of the Qatar World Cup before the tournament began.

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