World Cup Brand Wars

Who will win the World Cup? No, not Spain, Brazil or Argentina but the teams in South Africa aiming for financial victory. Nike, Adidas and Puma go head to head in South Africa this summer in a bid to become the sporting brand world champions.
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Who will win the World Cup? No, not Spain, Brazil or Argentina but the teams in South Africa aiming for financial victory. Nike, Adidas and Puma go head to head in South Africa this summer in a bid to become the sporting brand world champions.

If the North Korean football federation has anything like a marketing manager, he must be either hopelessly disorganised, or a very gutsy negotiator. Just a few days before the start of the World Cup, it was still unclear what shirts the North Koreans would be wearing for the tournament. Even Erke, the Chinese brand that outfitted the team last year, admitted that it didn’t know what was going on.

This dithering contrasts sharply with the slick marketing plans drawn up by other football teams and brands, which regard the World Cup as the ultimate opportunity to shine. In the last decades the event has turned into a marketing orgy, with the largest sports brands throwing hundreds of millions of marketing dollars at football fans.

The Italians had barely finished cleaning up the streets of Rome after their celebrations four years ago when sports marketing men started raiding South Africa. “We’ve been preparing for this for the last four years, and we’ve got all angles covered,” said Gavin Cowley, marketing director for Adidas, and the German brand’s project leader for the World Cup in South Africa. “Only the approach will be a little different this time, since the event is taking place in a developing country”.

For the public, the onslaught started last December with the introduction of the controversial Jabulani ball by Adidas in Cape Town. Then came hyped-up launches of each brand’s football boots, like the extravaganza thrown by Nike at the old Battersea Power Station in London for its latest version of the Mercurial in March. If you thought a football jersey was just an ugly nylon shirt, you must have missed more glitzy bashes for kit presentations. But the marketing feast will start in earnest in the next days, when all eyes will turn to South African football pitches.

Adidas will be outfitting twelve teams, including the South Africans and several heavy-weights like Argentina and Germany. The three stripes are already making a killing with South African football shirts, since the government attempted to whip up support for the team by declaring Football Friday and encouraging people to wear yellow shirts on the last day of the week.

Nike has set aside an unprecedented budget for the upcoming edition, as part of its bid to catch up with Adidas in the international football business. It will be worn by nine teams in South Africa, from Brazil to the Netherlands and Portugal. Its marketing blast includes an epic commercial of no less than three minutes, with guest stars like Cristiano Ronaldo.

As for Puma, it is almost playing a home game. It has been investing in African teams for many years, long before this became the smart thing to do. Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast and Algeria will all be sporting the wildcat, along with Italy, Switzerland and Uruguay.

There are another three brands on the pitch, with one team each: Joma outfitting Honduras, Brooks on the shoulders of the Chileans, and Umbro still worn by the England team. And then there’s the North Korean unknown.

It’s only in the last few years that marketing around the World Cup has turned into such a hullabaloo, as the rivalry between Adidas and Nike intensified in the football business. But the sports companies have long been using the event as an opportunity to display their brands and to deploy their marketing tricks.

“I tossed all the notes so that they came down all over the place like confetti. We laughed like kids”.

Long before Nike came into the fray, the World Cup was the ultimate stage for the rivalry between two even more intimate fiends: Adi and Rudi Dassler, the two German brothers who set up a sports business together but split up after an ugly spat during the war. They then launched their rival brands, Adidas and Puma, both still established in the small Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach. The ensuing feud divided the town and kick-started the battle for exposure at the World Cup.

Back then, it was still mostly about getting their boots on the feet of the players. François Remetter, former goalkeeper of the French national team, distinctly recalled Adidas and Puma fixers hanging around Swedish training grounds before the 1958 World Cup, buying drinks and badgering the players to switch brands. “One of my team-mates got so fed up with the whole rigmarole that he turned up for training with an Adidas boot on one foot and a Puma boot on the other,” Remetter chuckled. But shrewder players figured out that they might as well use the ferocious rivalry between the Dassler brothers to raise the ante.

By the time the World Cup reached England, in 1966, the friendly drinks offered by the sports marketing men came with bags full of cash. Alan Ball recalled that, on the morning of the final against West Germany, he was sent out to fetch Adidas money for himself and Nobby Stiles, his room-mate. “Imagine that. I was just twenty-one, playing for England and carrying £2,000 upstairs for wearing Adidas boots,” he wrote. “I tossed all the notes so that they came down all over the place like confetti. We laughed like kids”.

Oddly, the only player who did not get any enticing offers from either Adidas or Puma before the 1970 World Cup was Pelé. This was because, for the Brazilian player, Adidas and Puma had come to an agreement: to avoid an escalation in the cost of football endorsements, they would both stay away from Pelé. They called it the Pelé Pact.

However, when a disgruntled Pelé himself approached a Puma agent, Rudolf Dassler was unable to resist. All hell broke loose in Herzogenaurach when Pelé started appearing in his Pumas. And for $125,000 over four years, Pelé didn’t mind launching a new marketing trick: just before the start of a game, he signalled the referee and kept everybody waiting, all cameras on him, as he very slowly tied up the laces of his brand new Pumas.

Football marketing acquired another dimension in the seventies, when Adidas and Puma began to make football shirts displaying their brands. Until then this market had been in the hands of specialists like Umbro and Admiral, and in many cases their brands weren’t even on the outside of the shirts.

Horst Dassler saw it all differently. The only son of Adi and Käthe Dassler, he identified football shirts as a prominent bit of space to advertise the three stripes. An indefatigable marketer, he spent most of his time wining, dining and greasing football officials to make sure their teams would wear Adidas shirts. This kicked off an entirely new game, with endorsement contracts that would soon be worth a lot more than a glass of vintage cognac.

Nike holds the current record with its deal with the French football federation, worth €320 million for seven and a half years, starting at the beginning of next year. But in the seventies, the shirt game was all so new that a few wayward stars could refuse to play along. Ahead of the 1974 World Cup, Johan Cruijff stubbornly refused to wear the three-striped orange shirts provided by the Dutch football federation, arguing that he had a personal deal with Puma. The Dutch officials were so scared of losing their star player that they agreed to provide Cruijff with his very own shirt – removing one of the three stripes from the sleeve.

Adidas and Puma had come to an agreement: to avoid an escalation in the cost of football endorsements, they would both stay away from Pelé. They called it the Pelé Pact.

Brands became ubiquitous at the next World Cups, as Fifa was taken over by marketing-friendly officials. With the hyperactive help of Horst Dassler, they peddled exclusive marketing rights to all sorts of multinationals, making sure that the tournament would be plastered with the names of fizzy drinks and credit cards.

For the sports brands, the inflation was fuelled by the rise of Nike and its all-out offensive to dislodge Adidas from its market leadership in football (which has failed so far). For the last World Cup, in Germany, Nike and Adidas invested an estimated $250 million each.

However, the upcoming instalment is not quite the same: the fact that the event is hosted in South Africa has encouraged the sports brands to ditch at least some of the most outrageous antics of the last years, and to engage in what could be described as sustainable marketing.

So far, the largest Nike display in South Africa is not a huge poster of Franck Ribery in action, but the face of Didier Drogba draped over the Life Center tower in Johannesburg: it supports a campaign in which Nike sells red laces and other products to help raise funds for the fight against AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. “This time we are also using the World Cup as a platform for a very significant development project,” said a Nike spokesman. “And it is working, we’ve already sold hundreds of thousands of laces”.

Huge constructions like the Adidas replica of the Bundestag in Berlin four years ago have made way for investments in an impressive array of aid organisations. Along with its Bafana Bafana jerseys Adidas is selling yellow three-striped bandanas, known in South Africa as scrunchies, which will raise funds for the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Several container-loads of balls were donated to South African children, as well as outfits for trainers focusing on health and education through sports. Puma’s investments are even broader, supporting African football as well as arts and sustainable tourism.

Some South Africans have little time for such investments. Adidas has come under flak as an official partner of Fifa, which has made it very hard for others to profit from the World Cup. Ivo Regter, a South African columnist, has even called for a boycott of all products sold by Fifa partners. He will abstain from drinking Coca Cola or Budweiser, and dig out any old yellow shirt from his wardrobe to support the South African team. Yet Regter acknowledged that South Africans were likely to get swept up in the excitement anyway. “Pride is hard for South Africans to suppress,” he said, “so many people will bite their tongue about Fifa and its sponsors.”

Unless the party does turn sour, the impact of the World Cup should be worth all the efforts for the leading sports brands. Adidas should sell well over €1.3 billion worth of football products this year alone, and Nike’s score stands at about $1.7 billion. Four years ago, Adidas sold 15 million balls and more than 3 million jerseys around the World Cup.

And that’s not counting other Adidas stuff that will fly from the shelves if Argentina takes the World Cup with a glorious goal by Lionel Messi in full three-striped regalia. A winning shot by Wayne Rooney for England would work just as well for Nike, and Puma would savour a triumph by Samuel Eto’o and Cameroon. It remains to be seen who would benefit from a North Korean victory – apart from the bookmakers.

Barbara Smit is the author of Pitch Invasion: Adidas, Puma and the Making of Modern Sport.
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