"Sports branding specialists agree that in order to gain and maintain a mainstream media persona, athletes must transcend the sport and become known to people other than sports fans."
Brazilians love sports—make that adore sports. Maybe it’s the tropical weather and the great outdoors. Perhaps it’s our need to share, communicate, and be part of a group. Whatever the reason, there’s an undeniable love affair between Brazilians and sports—and that extends to the brands that understand and nurture that connection and passion.
We’re famous for our passion for football—or soccer, as our American friends like to call it—and while that is our true love, we do flirt with other sports. The rise of our middle class has made it possible for Brazilians to discover new pursuits, from volleyball to sailing. More than that, we now have the resources to buy the proper gear to train. That’s why Netshoes, a Brazilian retailer that began in a parking lot in 2000, is now Latin America’s largest online seller of sporting goods. It offers gear and apparel spanning a multitude of sports and activities, benefiting from Brazil’s growing base of avid online shoppers.
But every love story, of course, must have its ups and downs. And Brazil’s passion for football was not enough to prevent some grumbling and antagonism toward the 2014 World Cup.
During the Confederations Cup of 2013, a tournament designed to showcase the host stadiums for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, several protests broke out on the streets of Brazil. The fury was primarily directed at what was perceived as the exorbitant spending of federal money for the tournament. Yet the public outcry turned into, for some observers, a wakeup call against corruption. As all eyes were turned to Brazil, some protesters pounced on a global platform to broadcast their rage, a strategy similar to ambush marketing.
When it comes to the Brazilian national football team, the public is increasingly wary. During the years when Ricardo Teixeira was president of the Brazilian Football Confederation (CBF), ethics breaches plagued the organization. Brazil’s legendary player, Pelé, even accused Teixera of corruption as far back as 1993, which sparked a longstanding feud.
The image of the CBF was further tarnished in July 2012, when a Swiss investigation revealed that, during his tenure on FIFA’s Executive Committee, Teixeira and his former father-in-law had accepted more than USD $41 million in bribes in connection with World Cup marketing rights.
Such accusations and scandals, along with poor performances in recent tournaments, have changed the way Brazilians cheer for their national team. As a consequence, sponsorships were put to the test: companies reconsidered associating their brands with such a discredited organization. TAM Airlines, for example, severed its relationship with CBF in the wake of the scandals—yet many Brazilians didn’t even notice. In fact, recent Stochos Sports & Entertainment research shows that 40 percent of Brazilians can’t name even one out of the 13 national team sponsors.
Another reason that Brazilians aren’t as passionate about the National Team as they used to be—we no longer have globally recognized football heroes. Brazil is lacking a player who represents our culture, personality, style, values, attitude, and worldview. And for Brazilians, human connections are essential.
In the 90s, we worshipped Romário, one of the most controversial and creative players of all times. Then, it was all about the legendary Ronaldo, who rebounded from serious injuries to become the top-scorer in the history of the World Cup. Both archetypal heroes had relatable personal narratives, born and raised in the slums of Rio and overcoming great personal difficulties and skepticism to capture the hearts and minds of Brazilians and fans around the world.
Sports branding specialists agree that in order to gain and maintain a mainstream media persona, athletes must transcend the sport and become known to people other than sports fans. Romário and Ronaldo were much more than soccer stars. Their personalities are complex, their stories and journeys are compelling and filled with great frustrations, comebacks, and triumphs.
SportsPro magazine’s 2013 list of the World’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes once again named a Brazilian at the top of its list—Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior (better known as Neymar), the Brazilian footballer who plays for La Liga club FC Barcelona and the Brazilian national team. The 21-year-old soccer star retained his #1 title on the list this year, ranking ahead of FC Barcelona star Lionel Messi, golf pro Rory McIlroy, NBA star LeBron James, and the world’s fastest man: Usain Bolt.
Neymar’s second year at the top marked the first time that an athlete had retained the title in the four years that SportPro has published the list; for two simple reasons. First, he is talented, audacious and charismatic, both on and off the field. And second, all eyes will be on him during the 2014 World Cup. Whether he likes it or not, expectations are high and Brazil needs a hero. The nation (and the world) are looking to Neymar to fill that spot.
As SportsPro’s editor commented on Neymar’s second year at the top, “He is poised to be the star of next year’s World Cup, in Brazil, and he still has a blockbuster move to a European club potentially ahead of him. His superstar status and obvious talent make him a magnet for brands in one of the world’s rising economies. He’s everything a brand would want in an endorser and all the signs are his career has not even peaked yet.”
In the wake of Pelé, many of Brazil’s national heroes didn’t wear cleats. And that’s because more than football itself, Brazilians love cheering, winning and, of course, celebrating. The country went crazy when Ayrton Senna became a Formula One champion after winning three F1 world championships—and mourned when he was killed in an accident while leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. We cheered when tennis champion Gustavo Kuerten, or Guga as he was nicknamed, won the French Open at Roland Garros three times. And we’ve rallied behind our Olympic athletes, including sailor Robert Scheidt, a five-time medalist, and Sarah Menezes, the first Brazilian woman to win a gold medal in judo.
Brands that embrace the world of sports beyond football thus have great sponsorship stories to tell in Brazil. For more than 20 years, Banco do Brasil has sponsored our national volleyball teams and gained invaluable brand exposure during memorable international victories and Olympic medals. Today, it is almost impossible to think of Brazilian volleyball without associating them with the bank.
With the Olympics and World Cup on the horizon, sports sponsorships in Brazil have risen to a national record of R$ 3 billion a year, or roughly USD $1.3 billion, according to the Brazilian business magazine, Exame. Naturally, whenever top-tier sponsors and a global spotlight are involved, ambush marketing rears its head. In fact, it’s more common than most people think. During the 2013 Confederations Cup tournament held in Brazil this past June, FIFA spotted more than 100 ambush marketing attempts from both global and local brands.
Yet, despite FIFA’s best efforts at monitoring and clamping down on non-sponsors' stealth marketing, some attempts succeed. During the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, 36 attractive young women caught the cameras’ attention during a Netherlands game. Sporting matching bright orange miniskirts, they claimed they were innocently wearing the team colors. As organizers discovered, however, the Dutch beer brand Bavaria was behind the stunt—drawing eyes away from the game and the event’s official sponsor, Budweiser.
Another controversy arose in Brazil during the 2012 London Olympics. While McDonald’s was an official international sponsor of the Games, rival Burger King ran a local promotion offering double portions of French fries on the days that Brazil won medals. The advertising campaign featured a marathon runner with French fries held aloft as if carrying the Olympic torch in a tongue-in-cheek nod to the Games without showing (or paying for) the official London 2012 logo.
More recently, McDonald’s was involved in a dispute with Brazilian acarajé vendors, known as baianas, who expressed a desire to sell their goods in the World Cup 2014 stadium vicinity. Though the traditional dish they sell, acarajé, has been declared a national food, World Cup 2014 Official Sponsor, McDonald’s, attempted to prevent the baianas from selling their goods within a 2km radius of the stadium. In response, ABAM, the Association of Baianas of Acarajé and Mingau, contacted the Brazilian president and reporters in protest. FIFA was forced to intervene and eventually gave the baianas permission to work near the stadium.
The rise in top-tier sponsorship activity in Brazil in the coming years is also prompting Brazilian brands to rethink their media buying strategies. The simple “buy media to get visibility” strategy is no longer enough. As a result, Brazilian brands are learning from global brands about positioning, coherence, engagement, storytelling, and omnichannel cohesiveness.
Looking at the roster of 2014 World Cup official partners, it is clear how the six sponsors’ brand propositions and messages differ. Coca-Cola is all about celebration (Open Happiness). Visa talks about “acceptance” (in addition to market leadership, excellence, global ubiquity, and public awareness). Sony provides the experience, while adidas focuses on performance. As the exclusive sponsor in its respective category, each one marks out its territory and differentiates its point-of-view from one another and from competitors.
That’s exactly what Guaraná Antarctica is doing. The Anheuser Busch InBev-owned soda brand evokes Brazil in all its exuberant energy and joy. Guaraná has traditionally aligned itself with Brazilian sports, players and fans alike, and uses sports as a platform to tell compelling stories. When Neymar declined a contract to go to Europe, for example, Guaraná produced a TV commercial in which the player imagined himself sorrowfully playing alone on a snowy field. The commercial ended with Neymar at the beach, drinking refreshing Guaraná.
Another example of successful sports branding in Brazil comes from a football giant: Sport Club Corinthians Paulista, more popularly called Corinthians. The São Paulo club counts an estimated 30 million loucos, as its passionate fans are known, and draws an average of 40,000 fans to weekly matches.
Following a long history of poor management, Corinthians found itself in the 2nd Division of the National League in 2008. The dishonorable position led to a drastic shift in the club’s strategy, both on and off the field. Ronaldo was lured to join the club, even though some fans dismissed him as a has-been: overweight, injured, and discredited. Yet, what seemed like a marketing coup to sell jerseys became one of the most successful transfers in the history of Brazilian football. Ronaldo defied critics by playing well, winning championships, and helping rebuild the Corinthians brand and fans’ pride. The player also brought global attention to the club, which is now one of the world’s most valuable football brands.
The 2014 FIFA World Cup is less than a year away. Whatever happens on the field in June, this much is certain: There will be great opportunities for brands to share their respective messages and win new fans. After all, the event is bringing Brazilians and football together, reigniting their long-running love affair on the world stage with other passionate fans, players and brands from around the world. Let the storytelling, and the games, begin.