The expression ‘we don’t like cricket, we love it’ is made for Pakistan, if not made in Pakistan.
No other sport has the same effect on our nation. Cricket sets our pulses racing and has the potential to give us heart attacks. Yet looking at the unpredictable performance of our boys in green, known as they are for having, on numerous occasions, snatched /defeat from the jaws of victory, it is risky business for brands to be associated with Pakistan’s most popular sport.
So what are the alternatives? The reality is that options are limited in terms of finding a vibrant sports platform that can connect with Pakistanis the way cricket does. Hockey, our official sport, does not have a strong fan following and traditional sports such as kabbadi do not have the same appeal across class divides. However, there is a sport which could be considered as a potential brand platform and that is football.
By the time you read this, the FIFA World Cup will be reaching its conclusion. Regardless of whether the host nation can deliver on its promise, the tournament is going to be a global success because football has the largest fan following in the world and viewership figures of the FIFA World Cup dwarf those of any other sporting event – even the Olympics. The 2010 final was watched by over 715 million people. Brands have worked hard for the chance to be associated with the event, spending billions of dollars creating and rolling out campaigns at the national and global level. Simply put, football means big bucks and a lucrative brand platform.
Can the same be true for Pakistan? What is the level of interest among Pakistanis for this sport? Traditionally there has been a die-hard love of football among ethnic groups such as the Christian, Makrani and Pathan communities. Football also has a wider foothold in that the game is played at the school level and then there is the Pakistan Premier League which attracts teams from institutions such as the Army, Karachi Port Trust and WAPDA, to name a few.
Furthermore it can be said that interest in football is on the rise across the national spectrum. Walk into a mall in Karachi or Lahore and you will easily come across a significant number of young boys wearing T-shirts of their favourite international football stars and teams. Pakistani sports channels are also catering to fans by airing matches of the various leagues, including the English Premier League (EPL) and Spain’s La Liga.
Global brands working in Pakistan have also helped develop interest in football by running campaigns featuring football stars. Zong, for example, has a content deal with Manchester United whereby subscribers have access to exclusive content such as ringtones, videos and wallpapers and there is even more for avid fans if they buy the Zong MU SIM; fans who buy this SIM with the ‘follow the star’ option win free minutes and SMSs whenever their star scores a goal. Last but not least, social media has played its part in popularising football.
So, let’s examine what football has to offer from the point of view of a brand platform in Pakistan. The sport requires a great deal of energy and is considerably more physical than cricket. This makes it an ideal platform for brands which focus on growing kids as well as energy drinks which target a wider audience that includes teens and post teenagers. Football in some ways is a fashionable sport. Young Pakistanis, mainly from the upper classes, have taken to following the sport in a way they are unlikely to do for hockey or snooker. Football also lends itself to activation (to recreate the sport in a crowded shopping mall, all you need is a goal and a regulation size ball) and finally, the best thing about football as a communication platform is the fact that success is not tied to how well the national team fares.
Pakistan’s national football team is currently ranked 164th in the world (there are 207 teams) and has so far failed to impress on the regional (let alone the world) stage. The team’s highest ranking was 141 in February 1994 and the chances of Pakistan breaking into the top 50 are a long way off.
Does this matter to the public or to brands? Not at all and furthermore, as national pride is not linked to the exploits of the national team, brands will not run the risk of negative fallout, if and when the team loses. On the flipside, if the team were to actually achieve something of note (for example making it to the round of 16 in the Asian Cup) the brand promoting the game or sponsoring the team will be looking at a windfall. This is substantiated by the buzz and euphoria created by Pakistan’s success in the Street Child World Cup. Imagine if a forward looking brand had taken the initiative of sponsoring the team (Coca-Cola comes to mind)… they would now be reaping the benefits of having played a major role in the team’s success. It is good to see HBL come forward and sponsor these youngsters who have brought such joy to the nation.)
This is not to say that efforts to give the sport mass appeal have not been made. The Aman Foundation recently signed a MOU with the Real Madrid Foundation to promote football and basketball in Pakistan, while in the past Sports 360 and Geo Sports have promoted football tournaments and leagues.
As mentioned earlier, social media has played a role in the growth and the popularity of football. The World Cup has shown us how Pakistani brands which do not embrace the sport in their mass media campaigns can still leverage the interest and passion generated by the premier event. Facebook is full of brand pages promoting football competitions or providing fans with facts and info – for example Gillette, Jubilee Life and Tapal.
Given the fact that the FIFA World Cup is the talk of the town on social media, it makes sense for brands to exploit the buzz in the race for online engagement. Even offline, the restaurant and hotel businesses have devised promotions and special deals to ride the wave of football fever – be it by offering meals from Brazil or enticing patrons to come and watch the matches on the big screen. And let us not forget that the 2010 World Cup brought us a new form of marketing – the brand hijack, whereby brands which did not sponsor the World Cup tried, and in some cases succeeded, in upstaging their rivals through strategic placement and presence. Prominent examples include Nike and Pepsi, which through their excellent strategy and memorable TVCs were able to gain amazing mileage.
In a nation that bleeds green for cricket smart brands can deliver on their KPIs in a similar way by investing in football.
Tyrone Tellis is Senior Account Manager, MI Digital. firstname.lastname@example.org