Small with big ideas

Author: Rok Šinkovc | read time: 7-8 min

In the upcoming weeks all roads will be leading to Russia, which means that the 2018 FIFA World Cup participants must take extra care to ensure that the roads are well-paved. In other words, football associations from 32 countries have their hands full these days with endless marketing challenges, sponsorship activations and media contents.

We peeked into Croatia, Serbia and the smallest of all 2018 World Cup participants, Iceland, to see how these teams plan to leverage their assets across different platforms. They have a few things in common; first, they have a relatively small team of sales, marketing and media experts working for their football associations, and second, as football teams, they are one of the most widely recognised symbols and brands in their country.

Croatia: it is all about the family

Croatia, Slovenia’s only neighbour having qualified for the World Cup this time around, knows its way around well. Since 1994, shortly after they were recognised by FIFA and UEFA, they have only missed a major tournament twice (2000 UEFA EURO and 2010 FIFA World Cup). Their rich experience from previous tournaments will undoubtedly benefit the Croatian Football Federation (HNS) as well as the Croatian national team which is among the top ‘smaller’ teams in the world. “We are proud that our small team of colleagues is in the company of the greatest, it drives us to continue to move full steam ahead in promoting Croatian football. The fact that we cannot compare ourselves with the big federations in terms of human resources and finances, challenges us to be more creative and innovative. Marketing­-wise we are all aiming for more ‘likes’ of the Croatian team, not only the clubs and players themselves but also the media and other influencers. We are of course aware of our advantage – access to the team provides us with exclusive content that differentiates us from the others,” says Tomislav Pacak, who has been the HNS’s Media Officer for the last five years.

In terms of ‘selling’ the currently 18th team in the world, according to the FIFA Ranking, what will be different this year? The HNS places their bets on the project called #Obitelj (‘Family’). “It is a part of digital strategy that we have launched in preparation for FIFA World Cup in Russia and the upcoming 2020 EURO Qualifiers. The goal is to upgrade the existing #BudiPonosan (‘Be Proud’), which was awarded by UEFA as the best digital fan engagement campaign in Europe. Basically, what we want to do is promote the common positive values of sport and family using our amaz­ing team as the symbol, with which the whole of Croatia can identify. By taking a family-­focused approach to sport and our team, we are creating an image of Croatian football that is open and appealing for all generations and all audiences in today’s society. The message we definitely want to convey to all Croatian team fans, by emphasising family values, is to connect even more, to show their loyalty and to be an example to others who may not yet be as emotionally invested how to support our team in their challenging games in Russia,” explains Pacak.

When it comes to preparing their team for major competitions, Croatia has had quite a few challenges in the past, including disagreements with fans. “It is true that the HNS has a relatively complicated relationship with certain fan groups, which makes our every interaction sensitive and tentative, and we have to be extra careful and thorough. That is why fan engagement is such an essential part of the campaign #Obitelj – we want to engage all fan groups in Croatia. We also want them to know that football plays an important role in their families, therefore they should support it and understand those who already identify with us.”

Friendly match Croatia vs Mexico (Dallas, US) on the road to 2018 FIFA World Cup

This year will be the national team’s most prominent so far. They will be playing at least six matches with former World Cup winners (two with England and Spain, and one with Brazil and Argentina) and at least eight games with former continental champions (two with Spain and Peru, one with Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Nigeria and Portugal). On the one hand, this gives the HNS an incredible opportunity to create additional value in terms of sponsorship, media and fans, but on the other hand, it is a big responsibility. “We are working with a number of football federations trying to achieve intensive and in­-depth communication through social media. For example, during the friendly matches against Peru and Mexico in the US (Miami and Dallas), we used the Hard Rock Stadium and AT&T Stadium accounts to communicate with our fans. In preparation for the friendly game with Portugal, we plan to leverage the Modrić­-Ronaldo connection. Similarly, in preparation for the match against Argentina, we will directly include Ivan Rakitić and his teammate Lionel Messi indirectly. With these matches we have the advantage of having exclusive access to the players, the team’s hotel, the stadium and the locker room – places where other media or sponsors cannot access,” adds Pacak, who also realises that the HNS marketing team needs to be selective – no matter how good the content is and no matter how loyal the fans are, there is only so much pictures, videos or texts they can take in.

HNS swears by Twitter as the best platform for communicating with their fans. They have been extensively using it for a few years and have attracted over 140,000 followers. As they discovered that even Croatian users prefer English over Croatian when using Twitter, the majority of their content is in English which undoubtedly also attracts more foreign fans of Croatian football. In preparation for the 2018 World Cup, they started posting in both languages on Instagram, while their Facebook page (with 485,000 likes) is still targeted mainly at the local audience and the majority of the content is in Croatian. The HNS social media profiles are managed by a group of five people.

The upcoming tournament in Russia will be very challenging not only for HNS but also for their partners, with a particular emphasis on digital content. One example is the revelation of new national team Nike jerseys. “We worked closely with Nike representatives to update the kits, including materials and the launching of the jerseys.” These were revealed by various Croatian celebrities who are also football fans and identify with the national team, including top athletes Sandra Perković and Borna Ćorić, comedian Ivan Šarić, TV host Luka Bulić and choreographer Igor Barberić. They are also proud of their long­-lasting, 20­year partnership with the Zagreb Brewery (Ožujsko pivo) which will continue the tradition by creating attractive ads and activations. “However, we are not allowed to reveal any further details of this and other sponsorship campaigns at this time,” concludes Tomislav Pacak from the HNS.

Serbia: with a little help from Magnifico

Much like the HNS, the Football Association of Serbia (FSS) – comparable to HNS in terms of size – also has a relatively small team managing sponsorships, media and digital content that consists of five people, including their leader, Marketing Manager Margita Soro. Among external partners they work mostly with a design and creative advertising company called Right Now.

Fabio Cannavaro drew Serbia with Brazil, Costa Rica and Switzerland

Serbia, currently ranked 35th in the FIFA Ranking, is a regular FIFA World Cup participant (missing only World Cups 2002 and 2014) while they have qualified for UEFA EURO only in 2000. There is no question therefore that they have enough marketing experience in preparing their team for the big competition. Many sponsorship activations were revealed soon after Serbia qualified. More recently, since mid­-May, their main sponsorship partner Apatinska pivara (Apatinska Brewery) that brews the Jelen beer has generated a lot of buzz with their high­profile campaign. In collaboration with the famous Serbian film director Dragan Bjelogrlić and the Slovenian musician Magnifico, they created a video ad featuring the best Serbian footballers climbing the Serbian mountains, accompanied by Magnifico’s hit song “Pukni zoro,” which was adapted especially for the Jelen beer advertisement. The brewery has dedicated a number of this year’s sponsorship activations to Serbian national team – fans can buy beer with the players’ names on the cans or enter into a competition organised by Apatin Brewery and the FSS and be among the thirty lucky beer and football lovers who will have the opportunity to watch the Serbia vs Brazil spectacle on 27 June in Moscow.

According to Margita Soro, the communication and fan engagement via the team’s social media profiles is mostly in Serbian. They currently have 52,000 Instagram followers, 172,000 Facebook likes and 29,000 Twitter followers.

In addition to the Jelen beer, there is a variety of other partners these days who identify with the most popular brand in Serbia – as the team’s status is perceived by the FSS. “The company SKS365 with the sports betting brand PW365 is organising a big prize competition which will be happening throughout the World Cup. British Motors (Jaguar Land Rover exclusive distributor in Serbia) and kit provider Puma are also very active, while the company Eko Serbia, member of Hellenic Petroleum, dedicated special shelves and displays in gas stations all over Serbia to merchandise and has also included them free­-of-­charge in their loyalty programme. Aside from our partners, we have also partnered with other companies that wanted to be included in marketing and licensing activities, in the preparation period and during the tournament, and are already offering their football­-themed products, such as the ice cream Gool from Frikom and the cookies Tak from Jaffa,” says Margita Soro, Head of Marketing with the FSS.

Iceland: second favourite

Omar Smarason, Head of Marketing and PR with the Football Association of Iceland (KSI), and his team of five colleagues also have their hands full these days in Reykjavik. Iceland’s national team that has been a big hit in Europe ever since their qualification for 2016 UEFA EURO, has qualified for the World Cup for the first time, thus becoming the smallest FIFA member to do so (before Iceland, it was Trinidad and Tobago in 2006).

At the northernmost part of Europe, the football fever has spread practically everywhere you turn with various local companies engaged in organisation and marketing communication activities. The number of fans traveling to Russia, according to the country population, will most likely exceed all other participating countries, based on the fact that 8% of all population visited France two years ago. This means that the national airline and the KSI’s partner Icelandair will have an important role in providing Icelanders with reasonably­-priced direct flight connections to all locations where the Iceland national team will play (Moscow, Volgograd, Rostov­on­Don).

The KSI management discovered two years ago in France the niche that can bring the best business results for the Iceland national team – the fact that they are ‘the second favourite football team in the world.’ “We are connecting with the fans via Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, where we have been extremely active in the last few weeks. Our key markets in terms of fan support are, besides Europe, USA and China where our national team ranks as the second most favourite at the least for the upcoming tournament in Russia. Based on our research, the majority of our foreign social media followers is ranking us as the second among all teams they will be rooting for during the World Cup, and of course we need to leverage that. This is why we partnered with a foreign marketing agency which is opening communication channels in China by using their own social media, and this allows us to communicate with fans in their own language and really reach them,” says Smarason.

With their media campaign called “50 days to go until the World Cup,” the KSI committed to daily publishing of various contents including all kind of information about the team and the players, about Iceland and the World Cup. The first reactions were very encouraging. “Both our themes #fyririsland and #teamiceland were very well re­ceived, which means we have to keep our commitment and continue to do our best throughout the World Cup to keep our followers engaged every day and wanting more content, especially exclusive content that is normally only available to the football association, because others do not have access to the locker rooms,” says Smarason.

The KSI also noted that a major part of the youngest Icelandic fans has also been engaged, mainly teenagers – both girls and boys –, considerably more so than two years ago before the UEFA EURO. The reason is simple: the KSI has signed a contract with EA Sports as the FIFA license holder for video games, and through the virtual footballers they captured the hearts of the (young) fans who are, in the weeks before the World Cup in Russia when the summer days from May to June on Iceland seem endless, already winning their own tournaments on their TVs and computers.

The article was first published in SPORTO Magazine No. 11 (May 2018).