12 years of work to project an image for 29 days. Qatar is hosting the first matches of a World Cup shrouded in controversy from 2010 to the present day: from the controversial process of choosing the host country to the debated staging.
The conditions of the migrant workers who built the facilities, which according to international reports even led to deaths, or the significant threats to universal principles such as equality or diversity, are some of the numerous points denounced by humanitarian organisations, selected footballers, fans, invited artists or even the former FIFA president, Joseph Blatter, who recently acknowledged in a Swiss newspaper that the designation of the host state was not the right one.
With modern stage designs and grandiloquent messages of respect, Qatar has been focusing all its efforts on polishing its national brand, whose economic value is ranked 43rd in the world according to Brand Finance, taking advantage of the fact that the world is watching it closely for a whole month. A strategy that, according to reputation experts consulted by DIRCOMFIDENTIAL, has both effective and counterproductive results.
The director of The RepTrak Company for Spain and Latin America, Luis Bernardos, indicates that it will be at the end of the event when it will be possible to check “whether a possible negative impact on reputation can be counteracted or balanced by a good performance from the point of view of sports management”. Bernardos differentiates between the effect that the World Cup may have on groups sensitive to social issues, for whom “the reputation will foreseeably fall” and those more focused on purely sporting or business issues, for whom “the opposite may occur”.
MARCO founder and CEO Didier Lagae believes that Qatar “is trying to use this event to project something it is not, and now it is exploding in its hands with criticism from all sides”. He believes that from an end-consumer point of view, “I can say categorically that it will not gain a reputation”. However, the country branding expert considers that “it has gained a lot in brand recognition, which is not the same as reputation, and undoubtedly in doing business”.
FIFA, “the big loser”.
Experts agree that the biggest reputational damage caused by the World Cup, rather than Qatar, is FIFA itself. The federation’s reputation is at a low ebb, they say. Ricardo Gómez Díez, a Dircom expert in reputation and professor at the Carlos III University, comments that “it is the most damaged by this World Cup, without a doubt” and adds that “in reputation, it is more important to read the signals you send out, in this case, overreactions to cover up mistakes, than what you officially or formally say”. The professor would recommend that the organisation “lower the level of attention on the weak point and significantly improve its governance model, which continues to be its great weakness as an organisation”. In addition, he would advise adapting to the new times. “An update is key or it will end up happening like its little sister, UEFA, and the debate on European football,” he says.
Lagae points out that FIFA “has been a super corrupt organisation, used by its directors to enrich themselves. Qatar, Russia and many other events have brought FIFA into public disrepute. And Bernardos believes that “FIFA assumes a greater reputational risk than the rest of the actors, as it is the direct decision-maker of where the event is held and was obviously aware of the reality of the country, or should have been”.
Sponsors closer to immunity than reputational damage
Controversies surrounding the host state have little chance of impacting the reputation of its sponsors such as Adidas, Coca-Cola, Hyundai or Visa, according to experts. The director of The RepTrak Company believes that “for current or potential consumers, these brands are positioned – and therefore expected to act – as supporters of the world of football, regardless of where the events take place; therefore, although there is reputational risk, a priori it would not appear to be significant. They are not deciding on the location of the event”.
The founder and CEO of MARCO stresses that “FIFA’s sponsors are not the sponsors of Qatar, but FIFA has given its arm to twist, for example, with the sale of beer in the stadiums, directly affecting its sponsor Budweiser. The legal implications of this issue remain to be seen, as well as the question of whether a beer or alcohol brand should sponsor a sport”.
On the other hand, the Carlos III University professor believes that “the reputational damage to the World Cup sponsoring companies is low or non-existent, unless, for some unknown reason, they appear at the centre of a controversy or adopt a leading role in relation to the issues under discussion in this World Cup”, and believes that “consumers differentiate in their criticism of the organisation, FIFA and the sponsors”.
Public figures are also notable speakers of the rejection of the organisation of the World Cup. Artists such as Dua Lipa, Shakira and Rod Stewart declined to attend the inauguration as a sign of protest. A wave of denunciations that, in Bernardos’ opinion, “must be seen from the point of view of the artist himself, rather than the championship, since the negative news on the subject of human rights already comes from other sources with a repercussion that could be similar. Artists want to defend their image. Lagae also believes that this decision by the celebrities responds to their intention to “protect themselves because they don’t want to be criticised and lose fans by associating themselves with a show that makes a fool of itself”. Gómez Díez thinks that these refusals “raise the attention on this World Cup and the controversies surrounding it”.
In the coming days, the football teams will not be the only players who have everything at stake in the championship. The prestige, recognition and reputation of all parties involved in the World Cup are also at stake.