Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – China may not be sending a side to Qatar, but Chinese businesses will get top billing as sponsors at the 2022 World Cup.
Chinese brands are the biggest sponsors of this month’s tournament – even outspending US companies that include iconic names like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Budweiser.
China’s sponsors have raised $1.395 billion for the competition, which runs from Nov. 20 to Dec. 18, surpassing the $1.1 billion spent by American companies, according to Global Data, a London-based analytics and consulting firm.
Broken down on an annual basis, Chinese sponsorship is valued at $207 million a year, compared with Qatari and US deals worth $134 million and $129 million, respectively, according to the data.
The dominance of Chinese corporations in the competition reflects the aspirations of its brands to expand their recognition overseas to a level commensurate with their growing size and reach.
The rise in Chinese sponsors also parallels President Xi Jinping’s dream of turning China, which made its first World Cup appearance in 2002, into a footballing powerhouse through ambitious plans and targets, such as increasing the number of schools with 10-fold football fields by 2025. .
While the four Chinese sponsors of the 2022 tournament – Wanda Group, Vivo, Mengniu Dairy and Hisense – have relatively low profiles outside their home country, they are huge enterprises with billions of dollars in revenue and thousands of employees.
Wanda Group, an industry-encompassing conglomerate founded in 1988, and Mengniu, one of China’s largest milk producers, have each entered the Fortune 500 list several times.
“The World Cup works for Chinese companies both outside and inside China, as soccer has a huge following with the Chinese audience,” Martin Roll, a Singapore-based branding expert and consultant, told Al Jazeera.
“This strongly signals that these Chinese brands are playing on a global scale and showing this to the Chinese audience plays an important role. Being a sponsor and marketing partner of the World Cup is only for a select few brands that can afford it, so just being a part of it is a testament to the aspirations of Chinese brands.”
Chinese companies hope a link to the beautiful game can help them dispel negative perceptions around the “made in China” label, said Paul Temporal, a branding expert at Oxford University’s Saïd School of Business.
“Sports sponsorships allow Chinese brands to connect with global audiences who share the universal love of sporting experiences in emotional environments. “Football crosses all cultural boundaries and provides massive global reach,” Temporal told Al Jazeera.
“Chinese brands have learned from their Western counterparts that, although it is expensive to gain access to the world’s best events, sports sponsorships deliver long-term results for both brand owners and the nation. Brands that go global are brand ambassadors for China, and if they are successful in terms of global market share, they can have a positive effect on national brand image.
The biggest Chinese sponsor in Qatar so far is Wanda Group, one of FIFA’s seven official partners – the highest level of sponsorship – along with Coca-Cola, Adidas, Hyundai, Kia, Qatar Airways, QatarEnergy and Visa.
The Beijing-based conglomerate, which has investments in real estate, entertainment, media, manufacturing and financial services, has pledged $850 million as part of a 15-year deal covering all World Cup events until 2030. , according to Global Data.
Vivo, a consumer electronics company based in the southern city of Dongguan, is spending about $450 million as part of a six-year deal that included the 2017 Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup.
Mengniu, which is headquartered in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, and Hisense, a Qingdao-based electronics maker, have pledged to spend about $60 million and $35 million, respectively.
“Many Chinese companies grew globally by acquiring foreign brands. Lenovo and Haier have followed this approach in addition to building their brand,” Carlos Torelli, a marketing professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Al Jazeera, referring to well-known brands of personal computers and consumer electronics. in China.
“This makes it easier to penetrate global markets with an established brand. However, many other Chinese brands are trying to build their brands and events like the World Cup are the perfect ones to create awareness among large audiences. Participation in these events can facilitate future market expansions.”
While solar panel maker Yingli Solar became China’s first World Cup sponsor at the 2010 tournament in South Africa, Chinese companies began to make their presence known in a big way at the 2018 competition in Russia.
After major brands including Sony, Emirates and Johnson & Johnson pulled out of FIFA in 2014 and 2015 amid allegations of corruption in the bidding process for the Russia and Qatar tournaments, Chinese companies filled the funding gap.
Shortly after Wanda Group signed its mega-sponsorship deal in 2016, company founder Wang Jianlin said the controversy had been an “opportunity” for Chinese firms that previously might never have had the chance to support the tournament “even if to wish”.
No less than seven Chinese companies sponsored the 2018 competition, spending an estimated $835 million – far more than American and Russian brands.
Chinese firms maintained their strong showing at Copa América 2021, South America’s biggest soccer tournament, accounting for three of the four official sponsors.
Kuaishou, TCL Technology and Sinovac found themselves shouldering the bulk of the sponsorship duties after several major sponsors, including Mastercard and Diageo, pulled out amid controversy over the health risks posed to players by COVID-19.
Ahead of Qatar 2022, Chinese brands have again shown they are more reluctant to wade into human rights debates than their corporate counterparts elsewhere.
Unlike Budweiser, Adidas, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, the Chinese sponsors have not expressed support for a Human Rights Watch campaign calling on FIFA and Qatar to compensate migrant workers and their families for the deaths and injuries that occurred during the preparations. of the World Cup.
Qatar’s government has said it has made “substantial progress” on labor reforms and that it continues to work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to “ensure these reforms are broad and effective.” Qatari officials have also denied allegations of corruption in their World Cup bid.
“Many global brands are wary of getting into a political debate about their support, so they may have been more reluctant to come on board as sponsors,” Roll said.
Nigel Currie, director of sports marketing and sponsorship agency NC Partnership, said, however, that major sponsors from around the world were eventually choosing to stay in the tournament because of the huge business opportunities involved.
“There is controversy surrounding the organization of the World Cup in Qatar. However, would Coca-Cola back down and risk Pepsi stepping in?” Currie told Al Jazeera.
“Would Visa surrender their position and allow Mastercard to return? The motor vehicle category is extremely competitive and any number of global car companies would be eager to take over from Hyundai Kia. The same argument can be made for several other product categories. The simple fact is that World Cup deals are made at several World Cups and are designed to exclude competitors and offer big brands an exclusive and elite opportunity to reach billions of people around the world.”
Josh Gardner, CEO and co-founder of China-focused consultancy Kung Fu Data, said he expected Chinese brands to continue to grow in international prominence as they “look for ways to build a stronghold beyond the homeland”.
“This is not unlike a parallel trend of Chinese brands signing sponsorship deals with Hollywood,” Gardner told Al Jazeera, pointing to product placements that include Vivo, instant messenger Tencent QQ and e-commerce company Jingdong.
“Recall the many Marvel and DC movies that feature labels such as Vivo and QQ and plaster the Jingdong logo across fictional skyscrapers on the big screen.”