The 10 best World Cup sponsorship ambushes

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We all love a bad guy

Everyone loves a good ol’ World Cup sponsorship ambush.

They’re the yin to the yang of official sponsorship. The Darth Vader to Obe One Kenobi. Loki to Thor.

Damn it, why are the bad guys always so interesting?

So here we go with an beautifully scalped top 10 of FIFA World Cup sponsorship ambushes to warm you up for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022.

Chosen and ordered with only a semblance of objectivity.

King of the Bad Guys

10 Budweiser self-ambush, 2006 and 2010

In Germany, Budweiser was not actually recognised as a beer, as it contains rice, a definite fail according to the Reinheitsgebot, or German Purity law. It’s long-running dispute with Czech brewer Budweiser Budvar further meant it was unable to be sold by its full-name and had to be offered by its acknowledged nickname, Bud. Even the company’s plan to market its beer under the long-winded name, “Anheuser-Busch Bud,” ran into trouble when another German brewer, Bitburger, protested that the word “Bud” sounded too much like the shortened name, Bit, that Bitburger uses in advertising. The compromise: a deal that allowed Bitburger to sell its beer at World Cup sites, though in unmarked plastic cups, and Budweiser, branded as Bud.

Beer’s such a sociable category.

Practically the only place you'd have seen full Budweiser branding in 2006

Meanwhile, Budweiser’s distribution in South Africa, for 2010, was non-existent while SAB, South African Breweries as was, held a near monopoly in the beer market. So if you went to any of FIFA’s official “fan fests” in each of the nine host cities, it’s SAB you’d have been drinking, not Budweiser. Unbranded of course, although immediately recognisable as Castle. Graham Mackay, erstwhile CEO, estimated SAB would sell an additional 18 million pints that year. Not so much a World Cup sponsorship ambush as self-ambush, we admit. But the first point – check the contract.

9 Carlsberg’s Old Lions ad for 2006

A UK execution, hence the low ranking – but nonetheless spectacular. Carlsberg, whose ‘probably’ series of ads were legendary, created ‘probably the best pub team in the world’ to inspire England to victory in Germany. The ad, 180 seconds long, played on TV and in cinemas and formed the centre piece of their 2006 World Cup media campaign.

The ad shows the lead up to and playing of a game of football between a local pub team and a team made up of former England players, coached by Bobby Robson. The campaign was a huge critical and popular success was voted one of the top ten advertisements of the decade by the British public. The interactive element of the television commercial proved a huge success, with more viewers spending a significant portion of time watching content than any previous interactive television campaign. For a football brand, authenticity is key and Carlsberg’s Old Lions, if not ambush in the purest sense of the word, authenticity allowed them to punch weigh above their budget.

Carlsberg repeated the formula in 2010 with an ad also produced by Saatchi and Saatchi. This version eschewed authenticity for hyperbole and feels contrived by comparison. Still worth a watch though!

So authentic you can smell the old carpet

8 Puma's home pitch scrap for 2006

Sotto voce, Puma launched a full-on sponsorship ambush of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. Clearly, the shared family origins of Puma and adidas play a role in this dramatic episode with in the German sportswear family system – but so also does the home market of Germany.

As long term partner of FIFA and equipment supplier of the German Football Federation, adidas conducted its largest football marketing campaign in the history of the company to date, +10. Puma, on the other hand, was the best represented national team supplier, with 12 national teams, among them the 2006 World Champion Italy. Puma also initiated the biggest market marketing campaign its history. Although ultimately adidas saw off Puma, thanks in part to terrific leveraging of its matchball provision, Puma gave them a run for their money, especially in Berlin.

Puma side-stepped the prohibition against fixed advertising by sponsoring Berlin’s largest pedicab operator and airline DBA. The entire fleet of pedicabs was Puma branded, whilst 27 DBA planes flying in to Berlin carried the Puma logo with the words, Welcome to football. The onboard crews also wore Puma uniforms.

Football legend Pele took part in a global TV and print campaign as well as additional experiential in Berlin, including sponsorship of the ‘Pele Station Exhibition’, about Pele’s life in Berlin. And Puma offered live broadcasts of all the games at Cafe Moskau, topping it off with appearances by various entertainers. Puma was actively involved with the charity organisation, together for Africa, and amongst others, organised a charity tram that took the Puma logo all across Berlin.

Not a great strap in any language - if in doubt, stick to English

7, Bavaria, shockingly orange in 2006 and 2010

Bavaria has earned itself world renown for its sponsorship ambush of the World Cup – mainly thanks to the vehemence of FIFA’s response. Everyone in sports marketing knows the story of how Bavaria used orange clothing in two successive World Cups to intrude on the proceedings of FIFA.

In 2006 World Cup, dozens of Dutch men turned out to watch the Netherlands play in Stuttgart in Bavaria-branded orange lederhosen. FIFA ruled they could only enter the stadium if they stripped, so underwear it was. So while the branding ambush failed, the buzz around Bavaria was turbocharged by FIFA. But orange lederhosen really – who wouldn’t have done the same, just saying. Can’t imagine the Reinheits-people either being anything other than riled by a Dutch beer calling itself Bavaria.

Bavaria had a new gameplay for 2010, swapping out men in orange lederhosen for 36 women wearing short orange dresses. Although the dresses were entirely unbranded, FIFA anxiety levels had obviously been building for the four years since 2006 : the women were ejected from the first game and two organisers were thrown into jail overnight with the charge of violating the Contravention of Merchandise Marks Act. Difficult for us to see how Bavaria violated anything’s except good taste.

While barely significant as a business achievement, in terms of fame, it delivered handsomely and made ambush hip again. Intrusion works – and there’s still plenty of scope, as technology keeps ahead of the regulations.

Groundbreaking in more ways than one

6 Umbro, tuning in for 2018

Umbro’s relationship with advertising and sponsorship has been, let’s say, quite hit and miss, but since its takeover by Iconix, it slowly seems to be finding its voice again. It marked the 2018 World Cup with a video showing viewers how to write a national anthem for the World Cup without falling foul of FIFA, delivered with perfect Brentian self-irony by Brett Domino AKA Rob J Main.

Barely a boot or strip in view so hardly a powerful product statement but it earns its place for its sarcastic deconstruction of copyright protection laws – making sponsorship ambush a sight more interesting than most legal posts, and certainly this one from Blacks Solicitors.

Does anyone else see a bit of Wes Anderson styling here?

More Umbro fun from Brett with Pepe here  – and a gratuitous homage to Decathlon from Brett Domino here.

5 Paddy Power : Brazilian cut through in 2014

Paddy Power has emerged as a power player in the world of ambush, with their trademark flip – wrong footing media and consumers with the deftness of a Ronaldinho. For Brazil 2014 they kicked up a social media storm with what appeared to be aerial photos of trees in an area Amazon rainforest chopped down to spell out a giant message in support of the England World Cup squad.

Paddy Power adroitly fanned the flames of indignation – before copping to photoshop and rebranding the stunt an exercise to raise awareness about Amazonian deforestation. Obviously it was a skin deep exercise and clearly just a tactic – but they’d already drawn the fire of critics. According to Marketing Week, this campaign took 160,000 people to the Paddy Power website within 24 hours.

Paddy Power’s in one of the least likely sectors to introduce social and environmental issues into the World Cup, and one suspects they do it for all the wrong reasons. But done it, they did.

But we burnt our fair share of pixels

Paddy Power was back again in 2018 , with familiar tactics.

First, it leaked supposedly ‘live’ footage of a Russian polar bear emblazoned with an England flag. Cue outraged feedback until Paddy Power revealed the stunt was in fact orchestrated to draw attention to the plight of the polar bear in the Russian Arctic.

Paddy Power also mocked Russian LGBT propaganda laws by donating £10K to charity for each goal scored by the Russian team in support of Attitude magazine‘s Foundation. Not quite as thoughtfully executed as Brewdog’s My name is Vladimir campaign but some first class trolling and excellent straddling of the early woke/anti-woke divide. The impressive thing about Paddy Power is that their campaigns suck in both social and offline media, resulting in near universal buzz – a rare achievement.

4 Comfort eating with Ubereats in 2018

We loved this campaign. Run globally, it starred Andrea Pirlo, stony-faced and disconsolate at Italy’s absence from the World Cup for the first time since 1958. Guess he won’t have been so disappointed this year.

We loved the campaign for lots of reasons.

Pirlo’s acting first and foremost. He plays his part to a tee. Not once does he come close to abandoning his wounded, almost aristocratic pride. Yet his craggy, almost expressionless face still manages to betray trace emotions – whiffs of disdain, pissedoffness, curiosity and then a glimmer of interest in enjoying the World Cup as a spectator.

We loved the universality of the story – building on Pirlo, on the northern Italian male, on the sheer blackness of exiting the World Cup or, in Italy’s case, not making it in.

We loved the storytelling it generated, with Pirlo acting as comic foil to the likes of Peter Crouch and Cafu.

And most of all we loved the simple and blatantly obvious way that Ubereats was an integral part of the story. Well done, Pitch.

We're still speechless

3 A Pepsi field of dreams for 2010

The African continent’s first World Cup was unique in producing a score-draw for Pepsi and official partner Coca-Cola.

Pepsi’s creative executions take no prisoners. They’re always loud, frequently brash but always full of life. Actual insight never appears an obvious part of the process – their ads are like Nike in 2D. But Pepsi’s 2010 execution managed to capture the joy of a South African World Cup perfectly – a riotous football dance on the steppes, a fabulous football feelgood.

Coca-Cola meanwhile based its campaign on goal celebrations and in the process created an immortal video bite in its 90” celebration of the celebration. For Coca-Cola, a rare occasion when its claim to be part of the football community feels justified and quality content segued effortlessly into online activation.

I'd rather be filming this than Nutmeg, that's for sure

2 Coca-Cola Nutmeg Royale 2022

Okay, so the Campaign Nutmeg Royale is actually from Pepsi – it’s just that it describes to a tee what Pepsi have done to Coca-Cola.

Nutmeg Royale is another Pepsi football riot, a cocktail of football and humour in a setting that’s clearly either Qatar or Nevarro. You can guess the theme.

It’s not great creative but light and fizzy – even if Messi’s straight to cameras make you want to burp. He could certainly take acting classes from Pirlo. With laboured Pepsi hero shots, it’s heavy-handed for all its fizz, only saved by its infectious energy and the lingering thought that the TA is eight year old boys.

Lionel always looks like he's waiting for the director's next instruction

It’s only up here at number two because it’s a) current and b) only possible due to the miserable self-ambush of Coca-Cola. 

We know we’re close to Christmas but Coke’s Believing is Magic actually feels more like Christmas creative than World Cup. But while Coke’s Christmas productions stem from an almost universal collective fantasy, Believing is Magic conjures up a fantasy which I for one have yet to have – an immersive carnival (pronounced like a good Carioca) that’s strangely dystopian in its lack of actual human contact or emotion. As though carnival and the World Cup aren’t – above all – social experiences. Given the territory that Believing is Magic offers, hugely, hugely disappointing.

Still it plays nicely into activation and I guess it saves them making a new spot for Christmas.

Looks more like a Pinterest listing than a World Cup ad

Both of these brands invest heavily in their World Cup campaigns. Everyone sings their praises. But more often than not, they’re average to rubbish. Rarely do either of them show the least sign of the insight that’s required to connect emotionally, a key component of successful sponsorship, ambush or otherwise.. It feels like they’re both too in love with their own brands to deliver for the brand of football.

1 Nike v Adidas 2010

The history of Nike v Adidas is a sub-plot of every World Cup and Olympics, a big meta-story of our times, if we can still use the term meta like that. Mega brand on mega brand. Challenger v establishment culture. Slugging it out. At least that’s the way it used to play out. Both brands have to be at No. 1.

For us, the turning point was 2010, Nike’s ‘Write the Future’ campaign, which trounced adidas’s Quest. Nike brought action, tongue in cheek humour and tension to dramatise the jeopardy of the World Cup for its principal actors – while adidas contributed a plodding, dragging epic. Practically Old Testament without the sex.

Nike’s three minute video, directed by Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (of Babel and 21 Grams fame), showed vignettes of Rooney, Drogba, Ronaldo and more determining their fate with their on pitch play. The video broke the record for most views in a debut week at the time for a viral ad with 7.8 million. According to Nielsen, Nike’s online buzz at 30.2% was more than double that of adidas. Google searches in the U.S. for Nike and World Cup nearly doubled adidas.

Now we know it’s not just about the creative – there’s much more to sponsorship than that. But it’s just so much harder to deliver a good campaign based on poor creative.

But 2010 was the wake up call for adidas. It had enjoyed success before – it’s 2006 ad creative was superb – but its humiliation in 2010 clearly shifted something in their consciousness which now lingers in corporate memory like teenage trauma, something never to be repeated.

Wayne's a hero and every second boy is called Wayne in 2020
The New Year's honours bring a predictable surprise
Wayne underperforms and lives out his life in a trailer park
adidas The Quest : it really is bleak

So there we go – our #10 World Cup Sponsorship Ambushes. We love a good ambush – almost as much as we love good sponsorship.

Our own modest little contribition was smuggling a fake World Cup trophy into hospitality at the Finals in Berlin 2006. Andy Knee, our wonderful client at the time, was pleasantly surprised.


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