Why Brand Suitability Is in the Starting Line-up for Marketers at the World Cup

All nations flag of FIFA Football World Cup 2022 in Qatar. Fans support concept photo.

By Nick Welch, Head of Programmatic Sales, EMEA, Integral Ad Science (IAS)

The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar is panning out to be a tournament like no other. Major sporting events always attract big audiences, but the international appeal of football draws in viewers like no other activity. The last iteration of the competition, held in Russia in 2018, had a total viewership of 3.5 billion  – almost half the globe. FIFA is expecting this year’s event to greatly exceed this, with a potential five billion fans tuning in.

This tournament is unique for two reasons. It is the first time the FIFA World Cup is being held in a Middle Eastern country, and it is the first it is being held during the winter. For brands and marketers, its placement during the traditional retail run up to the holidays – the first game kicked off five days before Black Friday – has given even more opportunities to reach consumers.

Despite having to compete with traditional festive campaigns, it is predicted that the tournament will have a $2 billion positive impact on ad spend. The intense focus on Q4 will see ad spend continue to rise globally by 8.7% in 2022 – despite rising inflation.

But where there is unique opportunity, there are also unique brand safety issues.

Avoiding red cards

Sporting events have always presented brands with safety challenges. Their unpredictable nature, with the fate of a game often decided by the smallest of margins, can cause rapid shifts in messaging.  In recent years, there have been scenes in the run up to, and during, the World Cup that brands have wanted  to avoid – including Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt, racist chants from fans in host country Russia in 2018 and references around brand sponsorships.

Since its announcement, the Qatar World Cup has attracted more controversy than any previous tournaments. There have been allegations of human rights violations within the country since it was named as the host nation, while its stance on issues such as women’s rights and LGBTQ rights have drawn criticism worldwide.

For global brands, advertising that is seen to be endorsing these viewpoints – even if only through proximity – can lead to calls of ‘sportswashing’. This is brought into starker focus in the wake of the recent 2022 UEFA European Women’s Championship. The inclusivity of the tournament was reflected and amplified by the brands who sponsored it, from Nike’s ‘Never Settle, Never Done’ campaign to Volkswagen’s remote control LGBTQ pride car. Can these same brands now be seen to take part in the tournament?

Brands will need to tread a fine line with their advertising during the tournament. The opportunity to reach a global audience prior to the holidays cannot be missed, but at the same time, advertising in the wrong environments could be seen as an endorsement of views that many would not consider appropriate.

On the front foot

This issue is clearly complex and nuanced. Advertising will need to run alongside World Cup related content, but not alongside content that highlights alleged human rights abuses. Failing to tread this tightrope correctly will not only impact brand perception, but sales as well –  nearly half of consumers would reconsider purchasing from a brand whose ad appeared next to inappropriate content.

Employing a brand safety solution will be a must. However, brands need to look beyond legacy open-web options such as keyword exclusion lists , and instead shift their focus from brand safety, to brand suitability using advanced contextual comprehension.

These tools not only leave brands open to possibly harmful content due to their imprecise filtering, they can also leave safe content being blocked, meaning key audiences may be missed and ad spend wasted.

Instead brands need to employ technology which analyses content with a greater degree of flexibility and accuracy in order to navigate suitability effectively. These powerful AI-based solutions provide a tailored approach and keep ads away from inappropriate environments by placing them in contextually relevant locations.

For example, in relation to the World Cup, a brand may want to steer clear of any content related to possible LGBTQ rights violations, and so may add related words to their blocklists. While it may keep them safe, it may also stop them appearing next to positive LGBTQ content or publishers.

A suitability solution utilising an advanced comprehension of context such as natural language processing will instead be able to more accurately examine content for nuances in tone, sentiment aligned or misaligned  to the brand; allowing an ad to be placed if it is appropriate.

With marketing budgets set to come under pressure as the cost of living crisis continues to squeeze, placing ads in contextually relevant environments can also help drive consumer attention and maximise outcomes. Consumers are three times more likely to engage with an ad in a contextually relevant environment.

Sporting events always throw unpredictable issues up for brands. But the unique blend of politics, human rights issues, and staging a tournament during the holiday run up, means marketers are going to have to be even more alert to potential pitfalls. Brand suitability solutions are a powerful tool during Qatar 2022, allowing them to benefit from the huge audiences, while not being seen as endorsing controversial views.