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The World Cup: 4 Thoughts on Branding

Soccer is known around the world as the beautiful game. It involves an estimated 3.5 billion people annually as either participants or fans. In the USA alone, 18 million youth play soccer each year, that’s 1 in 4 children between the ages 4 and 18. For the 2010 World Cup, an estimated $1.5 billion will be wagered. Compare that to $83 million bet on this year’s Super Bowl and you can see how monumental this sport is to the world.

If you’ve ever watched a World Cup match, you’ve no doubt seen the passion and pride fans have for their national sides. It’s truly awe-inspiring, and personally I can’t get enough. As the world’s game has taken center stage over these 4 weeks here are four things we can learn about branding from the World Cup.

Every country in the world has it’s own national personality, and the brand of football they play matches this personality to a “t”. It’s one of the things I love to talk about when people ask me “What’s so special about watching two teams play to a 0-0 draw?” It’s the pageantry of it all. Here are a few examples of what I mean.

The English play physical, no-nonsense football, and their fans think they’re a little bit better than everyone else. The Dutch are technically proficient, hence the nickname, Clockwork Orange. They prefer a straight-forward style to a lot of dancing around and diving on the ground. Speaking of dancing, as originators of the “jogo bonita”, Brazil are known for their samba-style of play. Their fans not only expect them to win but to win with style and finesse. The Spanish are flashy and temperamental. Italy is known for its flair and dramatics (ever heard of players taking a dive?). The French style of play is moody—full of passion one minute, and disinterested the next. The Korean work rate is unmatched. And the US team is beginning to make a name for itself as the comeback kids.

Likewise, as an organization, or even just as an individual, it’s important to “not put anything on the pitch” that doesn’t represent you well. If you’re trying to emulate what someone else is doing, you’re not being authentic. Be yourself.

If you think the World Cup is just a one-month tournament that comes along every four years, think again. Qualifying starts nearly three years before the next cup takes place and lasts for over two years. It will on average involve more than 50 players per country as coaches navigate injuries and try to find the right mix of players. On top of helping their national sides qualify for the next cup, most players will feature in 60 or more games for their club teams each year, running over 7 miles per game, often at a dead sprint.

Qualifying is a grueling but necessary part of making it to the World Cup. Similarly, branding takes commitment and consistency. It also can’t be done by one person, it’s a team sport. If you want your brand to stand for something great and make a difference, it’s not going to come easy. Work really hard.

Soccer is a sport, a game. Its first participants? A bunch or bored barbarians. It’s first official ball? A severed head. The modern day game is a bit more sophisticated, but you’ve got to give those barbarians some credit for creativity. If you want to see passion and creativity in today’s game, you need go no further than to take a look at some of the nicknames by which teams are referred. The Aussie team is known as the Socceroos. Cameroon as the Indomitable Lions. Nigeria as the Super Eagles. Japan as the Blue Samurai. Spain as La Furia Roja “the Red Fury”, New Zealand as the All Whites (the All Blacks are their World Class rugby team), Italy as Azzurri, Germany as Die Mannschaft, Denmark as the Danish Dynamite, England as the Three Lions, the USA as the Yanks. And the all-time best, the South African team as their beloved Bafana Bafana (the Zulu word for boys).

We live in a time when creativity is being recognized, valued, and even expected as an important part of our lives. We’re much more likely to pay attention to brands that cause us to think, laugh, or cry. We’re looking to be inspired. So be passionately creative.

Since goals are hard to come by, the methods employed for celebrating them has become an art form. There’s the classic knee slide, often performed by England’s Captain Fantastic, Stephen Gerrard. Then there’s the “rock the baby” made famous by Bebeto of Brazil in the ’94 cup. A more recent celebration employed by some includes lifting the jersey to reveal a hidden message on the undershirt, i.e. Kaka’s “I belong to Jesus” message. And the group dances of Nigeria and Cameroon are always a sight to behold. Regardless of technique for the celebration itself, pointing at, shouting to, or saluting the crowd is a must.

Footballers understand that it’s their fans that make what they do possible and profitable. Celebration is one of the most sincere and memorable forms of branding. In the same way, you should celebrate with the people who bring you success. They’ll keep coming back.

Soccer is by no means a perfect sport. It has its fair share of coaching, reffing and doping scandals. Fan violence is all too common. Personally, I’ve been pick-pocketed twice in my life, and both occasions were at soccer games in Brazil and Italy. But for all it’s highs and lows, soccer remains unquestionably the most beloved sport on the planet. It reflects personality and pride. It takes an unbelievable amount of commitment and dedication. It puts the spotlight on creativity and passion. It brings people back time and again.

Does your brand do all this? It should.

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