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Complicated in Qatar

By Chris Ross | October 19, 2022 | 0 Comments

Marketing LeadershipmarketingCMOBrandMarketing Leadership and Strategy

The 2022 FIFA World Cup is coming to Qatar. Time-shifted to November to avoid Summer in Qatar, with surface-of-the-sun temperatures. The anticipation around this epic, global spectacle is quickly building. As the volume of “how to watch the World Cup” searches grows over the coming weeks and the excitement builds, dark clouds continue to loom over the event, creating some very real challenges and opportunities for brands.

Qatar has some challenges:

  • Human rights – In the ten years since being awarded the World Cup event, it’s been reported [Amnesty International] that over 6,500 migrant workers have died building event-related infrastructure. In addition, Qatar has been accused (International Labor Rights Forum) of illegally recruiting and exploiting workers, unsafe, extreme working conditions, and a flagrant disregard for workers’ lives.
  • LGBTQ+ discrimination and criminalization – Current Qatar law punishes same-sex relations with up to seven years in prison [Human Dignity Trust]. Human rights organizations have confirmed the Qatari government has actively surveilled and arrested LGBTQ+ people based on their online activity. Qatar actively censors traditional media, excluding LGBTQ+ content from the public sphere.
  • Policies against women – Qatar maintains state policies [Human Rights Watch] that discriminate against and facilitate violence against women.

These issues have been covered by multiple media outlets and supported by credible, detailed journalism. The controversy about the challenges in Qatar has been bubbling for some time and has already generated notable reactions. Some players and teams have threatened boycotts, well-known TV personalities have refused to host World Cup-related broadcasts, and sponsors of several country teams have decided not to do any World-Cup promotion. There are very real rumblings.

The official partners for the 2022 FIFA World Cup have made significant investments to be sponsors. Serious money even for big brands, and only a portion of what each will spend to fully activate their sponsorship investment. Hefty investments, global exposure, and a controversial host country should make for an interesting few weeks. Given patterns we’ve seen in the past around large-scale events, we can expect FIFA and its collection of sponsors to explore one of these marketing strategies.

The blissfully unaware strategy – Expect some brands to attempt to completely and totally ignore any Qatar-related issues. These types of campaigns will feel mostly location agnostic and will avoid any third rail topics or references to the host country. If the World Cup was held in Tokyo, Brazil, or Los Angeles, the campaign would feel largely the same.

How could it go badly? Not acknowledging anything about Qatar would likely come off, or be called out, as tone-deaf, insensitive, and dismissive of genuine human suffering and discrimination. This kind of approach would also make it very difficult to add any sort of location-specific feel, which can be a powerful element in a campaign, without also being held accountable for addressing issues with the host country. This strategy is also much more likely to get torn apart on social media, which would then force the brand to react, which will be likely to come off as reactive and insincere. Completely ignoring the issues – is probably not a great approach.

The activist strategy – A World Cup sponsor might take a direct, provocative approach, embracing the opportunity to shine a light on social issues in Qatar. Efforts to provide relevant support organizations with meaningful, tangible resources and actions, an activist-style approach, could starkly contrast with brands attempting to gloss over the underlying problems.

How could it go badly? Highlighting social issues in Qatar and making them a prominent element of a World Cup sponsorship effort might raise questions about why the company became involved as a World Cup sponsor at all. If the situation is so bad, why support the event? Even if done well, directing too much attention to the underlying issues could overshadow or undermine the brand’s overall World Cup marketing effort, distorting or diffusing the overall brand narrative for the sponsorship.

The acknowledge and minimize strategy – I imagine this will be one of the most common approaches for World Cup sponsors. This strategy will include vague, non-accusational, acknowledgment of local issues coupled with contributions or partnerships with existing support organizations that are helping workers and their families, the LGBTQ+ community, and women’s groups. Brands can assure concerned audiences they are aware of issues and have taken some tangible action while not offending the host country.

How could it go badly? Given the tiptoe nature of this strategy, concerned audiences may accuse brands of not doing enough, not holding the host country, FIFA, and others accountable or truly acknowledging the gravity of the issues. This could be seen as a check-the-box strategy and come off as insincere or inadequate. This might be just fine with brands who are willing to take some heat around not doing enough, given they will be able to credibly say they have done something.

The thread the needle, inspirational strategy – Expect plenty of inspirational marketing ramping up to and during the World Cup. We’ll all be prompted to tap our full human potential, nurture the greatness in others, help our fellow man, and recognize our global connected consciousness, all while being gently encouraged to buy beer, cars, shoes, travel, software, etc. A savvy brand may find a way to weave narratives that implicitly address underlying issues in Qatar with the inspirational, aspirational messages they would like aligned to their products and services. Highly skeptical any brand could pull that off, but it’s a worthy goal.

As if all the World Cup issues related to Qatar weren’t enough, FIFA and the World Cup sponsors have a multitude of other narratives and challenges to manage. Moved to November, the event is now squarely battling Santa for mindshare in the US and Europe. This will be the final World Cup for legends Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. It’s expected that many players are not going to be shy about expressing their personal views, despite the guidance they’ve been given. Social media will be on fire. Expect every minute detail of the event, players, broadcasters, sponsors to be worshipped and trolled, and everything in between.

For FIFA and the World Cup sponsors, a genuine and heartfelt good luck. The marketing world, the entire world, will be watching.

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