Liquid Thinking

World Cup Drinking

Will it be a dry affair?

9th November 2022

The Qatari World Cup; pick a controversy. With the 2022 FIFA tournament set to begin on November 20th, it’s fair to say the road to the tournament has hardly been smooth. Not least for drinks sponsors. With a strict approach to alcohol regulation and consumption, and accusations of human rights abuses levelled at the Middle Eastern nation, we ask drinks brands associated with the event, what are the opportunities? And in these politically charged times, are brands at risk of being guilty by association?

Human rights abuses; I think we can all agree, they’re not a good look. Yes, we’re being slightly flippant here, but the scale of the controversy surrounding FIFA’s choice to hold the 2022 World Cup in Qatar are so numerous, they’re hard to wade through.

Besides the hot weather, unseasonable timing, claims of corruption, not to mention Qatar’s views and record on LGBTQ+ rights and its treatment of migrant workers, so far the 2022 World Cup has been about anything, but the football.

In fact, ahead of kick off next week, FIFA has taken the extraordinary step of writing to all 32 World Cup finalists, asking them to avoid politics and focus on the football, saying: “Please do not allow football to be dragged into every ideological or political battle that exists." Which may be an optimistic example of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Widespread criticism

So far the criticism has been rife, from consumers, from celebrities and from football teams and organisations themselves. And despite pleas from FIFA, the English and Welsh football associations have already issued a joint statement alongside eight European federations under a UEFA Working Group on Human and Labour Rights, voicing their intent to keep speaking out on such issues.

So, where does this leave brands that are backing the tournament? Are they – in the eyes of consumers – guilty by association? It’s fair to say that headline sponsors such as AB InBev’s Budweiser have had a reputational hot potato on their hands, between this and the country’s approach to alcohol. And though the consumption of alcohol isn’t illegal in the Middle Eastern nation, it is restricted, with alcohol advertising banned outright. There goes some of Budweiser’s (usually) most prized branding opportunities. And though the event was initially set to be dry, organisers have conceded to drinking in fan zones, festivals, and within stadium perimeters, but not the stadium itself. There goes its exclusive pouring rights.

What are the benefits?

So, what is it doing? According to Bloomberg, AB InBev expects more beer will be consumed in Qatar during the tournament than the nation would typically consume in an entire year. Work to prepare restaurants in the city, where beer can be served, has involved training 6,000 workers to serve the beer properly, said to be the biggest virtual training scheme in its history. However, balancing its commercial needs with the moral sensibilities of its host nation is going to be a tricky balancing act. The World Cup may open up a modest new market for the brand, but only if its seen to act responsibly.

Feel good vibes at home

Further afield, it’s fair to say the brand is trying to tap into the feel-good vibe of England fans gathering in the pub to watch. Budweiser is also the sponsor of the England men’s team and the brand is launching its biggest ever on-trade campaign in the UK, backed by copious point-of-sale, to promote its sponsor position. It says beer continues to be the most popular drink during football tournaments with 41% of pub-goers choosing to buy beer when watching England matches. It also claims that sporting occasions also entice new customers into the beer category with these consumers opting for known brands.

So will any of this leave consumers with an odd taste in their mouths surrounding brands that back the event? Budweiser and other headline sponsors have had a long time to think about this. As early as 2014, the company joined other backers to push FIFA into taking an ethical stance on Qatar, amid fears it could damage their brand.

In some ways, Budweiser’s invisibility on the ground and its attachment instead to the warm fuzzy feelings associated with simply gathering with your mates in the pub to support the home team, may be its saving grace. Whatever the complexities of it, it is appearing to back community over politics and for the majority of consumers, that will be enough.

A tricky path

However, consumers increasingly expect brands to stand for something, as well as stand against obvious wrongs. And for brands that have been quick to cash-in on, sorry, back cause-driven marketing previously, staying silent speaks volumes. In fact, according to a YouGov opinion poll commissioned by Amnesty International and released in September, 66% of consumers across 15 countries said that FIFA’s corporate partners and sponsors should call on the association to compensate migrant workers that have suffered while working on World Cup-related projects. It’s thought however, that so far, none have responded.

Will any of this affect the purchasing decisions of punters down the pub? As the tournament nears, its critics are likely to become ever more vocal. How damaging the news headlines will be, will impact those who have stood by it, to an extent. It’s hard for consumers to be too critical of a tournament that by watching, they in turn are also supporting.

However, putting profits over people is a step further. Budweiser’s tricky visibility act may work in its favour for many football fans. Without alcohol branding in the stadiums, it is in some ways at arm’s length from the whole affair. But brands need to be acutely aware of the political and social climate in which they operate, primarily, because it’s the right thing to do. But in a market where brands are increasingly attaching themselves to causes – from the fight for racial to gender equality – brands that fail to speak up risk not being believed or being seen as insincere when they finally do.

Interested in finding out more about what this might mean for you and your business?

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