How Should Global Brands Engage Gen Z During The World Cup?

In the United States, search interest in the “Super Bowl” spikes every January, so Americans can be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that it represents the biggest sporting event for “football fans.”

But, worldwide, “football fans” are what Americans might call “soccer fans,” and search interest in the “World Cup” is seven to eight times greater than the “Super Bowl.”

Normally, search interest in the “World Cup” peaks in June every four years.

But, the FIFA World Cup in Qatar kicks off on November 20, 2022, and will be played until December 18.

This unusual shift from its normal slot is captured in the YouTube video, “2022 FIFA Men’s World Cup: Jon Hamm as Santa Claus gets his holiday cut short | FOX SOCCER.”

So, with the biggest global sporting event just around the corner, digital marketers in the U.S. may need to juggle their holiday plans to take advantage of the biggest marketing opportunity for global brands.

And the demographic that many marketers are struggling to reach continues to be Gen Z.

According to a recent survey conducted by Emory University, only 23% of Gen Z claim to be passionate sports fans.

In light of this, brands are searching for ways to satisfy a younger generation’s appetite for immersive, community-driven experiences.

Brands like Coca-Cola, Adidas, and U.S. Soccer are all ramping up their promotional efforts targeted toward the youthful audience.

So, as the World Cup inches nearer, how should other global brands use digital marketing to engage Gen Z during the holiday shopping season this year?

To answer this question, I interviewed Kevin Kim, the CEO and co-founder of Stadium Live Studios, and an expert in gaming and sports marketing strategy. He’s worked closely on products geared toward the way Gen Z consumes media.

And Stadium Live, a digital playground that has gamified sports fandom, recently received investments from NBA star Kevin Durant, French soccer player Blaise Matuidi, and Dapper Labs Ventures.

Below are my questions about advertising trends and brand strategies behind targeting Gen Z, and Kim’s answers, which provide real-world insights from conversations he’s having with his team around this exact topic.

Greg Jarboe: “Brands have been struggling to reach younger audiences – is sports marketing not the way to go anymore?”

Kevin Kim: “A big part of reaching younger audiences is making sure you’re on the platforms where they are hanging out. Traditional sports marketing focuses on showcasing brands on-screen during the game, but what we’re seeing is that younger audiences, Gen Z in particular, are spending less time actually watching the games and are instead moving towards consuming sports through short-form media like TikTok and Instagram.

That’s not to say that traditional sports marketing isn’t still a viable way of hitting Gen Z audiences, because many still do watch games. but unless your brand is visible on the platforms where sports clips and content is being shared, you’re not going to get the same amount of eyes on it, and your brand isn’t going to have the same awareness as others who are on those platforms.

Modern sports marketing is not just hitting Gen Z on screen, but also on social media and other sports platforms. Marketing as a whole is shifting towards social, but the experiences brands are crafting need to be authentic and relevant to Gen Z; otherwise, a lot of it is lost. Gen Z is really good at sniffing out the fake brands who are doing it for their image versus those who are genuinely looking to connect with their audiences.

At Stadium Live, we’re building the sports and culture platform where brands can engage with Gen Z sports fans in a truly authentic way by incorporating their brands into branded and gamified experiences within the product.

Brands that are pursuing sponsorships in sports need to look at where their audience is really spending their time and allocate resources there. Placing ads in sports matches on screen isn’t a full funnel anymore.”

GJ: “Why are Gen Z sports fans hungry for immersive experiences?”

KK: “Gen Z sports fans aren’t just sports fans anymore. They see the athletes they’re following showcase their interest in other aspects of culture like art, music, and fashion, and it impacts their own tastes. Athletes are more than just athletes now; they’re celebrities and tastemakers.

Immersive experiences for Gen Z pull on more than just one heartstring (sports). Truly immersive experiences pull on a core interest like sports, but pepper in other interests such as gaming, fashion, etc., to create a package that Gen Z feels like they belong in. People love seeing themselves represented in your product, and it forms the basis for a really strong emotional connection between brand and customer.

Stadium Live is doing a lot of that right now and we believe it’s one of the core reasons why Gen Z has clung to the platform as much as they have. I can be a sports fan but also love anime; those two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive.

We cater to a fanbase that has seen many brands within the sports realm treat them like being a sports fan means … all you care about is sports. One of our core pillars as a company is ‘Be Who You Want To Be,’ meaning that anyone who comes into the platform should be able to wear what they want and express their interests however they want while still having it wrapped under the umbrella of sports.

I can showcase my love for [a musical artist] or love for high-end fashion right on the platform and that helps many Gen Z fans feel like they belong. We see a lot of people in the platform actually creating micro-communities with their niche interests and that keeps them coming back. Finding your individual community in Stadium Live is a core part of our success and we see it as something we’re going to keep building on.

GJ: “FIFA’s video game has become a core part of soccer culture and a huge draw for Gen Z. How can the adoption of gaming by marketers help to increase return on investment (ROI) associated with their ads?”

KK: “A large part of Gen Z’s affinity for video games stems from a need for connection and community associated with their interests. Fans are looking for an omnichannel experience with brands. Video games like FIFA, NBA 2K, Madden, etc., build on the experiences that fans have in real life by educating them and making them deeper fans.

The more football, basketball, etc., players I know, and the more stats I know about the sport, the more likely I am to commit to watching a game or engaging with a brand. Fortnite, in particular, has been great at showcasing this with branded skins and experiences within the game.

We think that video games to Gen Z play as big of a role as traditional marketing does, because as mentioned above, authentic and real experiences drive engagement and brand loyalty. And for a digitally-native generation like Gen Z, there’s no better way to create an immersive experience than in a place they’re already familiar with.

Creating an immersive experience for your brand within a video game can create a lasting impression and connection that would normally take dozens of individual touchpoints beforehand. If we think about the amount of time spent by Gen Z weekly in video games (over 7 hours per week), it makes perfect sense for your brand to be where your audience hangs out.

If they’re spending time on social media and video games, then you need to be marketing within social media and creating immersive experiences for your brand within video games.”

GJ: “While some might think World Cup ads are crucial for big brands to partake in, it might actually not be worth it – why?”

KK: “Like I mentioned above, a large trend we’re seeing with younger audiences is that they aren’t spending as much time watching sports in front of a screen as previous generations; they’re instead spending a lot more time on things like TikTok, Instagram and Reddit to get their fix of sports.

A large part of today’s modern sports fan base actually rarely watches games. So what we’re seeing is that, unless your brand is visible or being talked about outside of the match itself, you’re limited substantially in your overall reach compared to a multi-pronged approach of hitting Gen Z across a bunch of touchpoints in the places they hang out.

A brand that’s not running ads during the World Cup can actually have more success than other brands if they are hitting the right messaging at the right place, and to the right audience. If you’re going after Gen Z, associating yourself with the World Cup by building immersive experiences and giving fans the platform to create their own communities in a controlled environment is a much better way of developing real connections.

Younger fans are so bombarded with ads every single day that they’ve become numb to it. Brands that make an attempt to connect with their audience and experience sports with them, will see a lot more success and better customers in the long run than those who buy 30-second ad spots during prime time.”

GJ: “How can brands build interest amongst Gen Z ahead of the 2026 World Cup that is set to take place in North America?”

KK: “Build authentic relationships with Gen Z. Bring them along for the ride and get them to help guide your next move. Give them the platform and space to form their own unique connection with your brand by bringing them curated experiences.

Tie your brand in with personalities they care about and that reflect your brand pillars. We use a term called Phygital (Physical + Digital) here at Stadium Live, [which] is a cornerstone of how we’re building relationships with Gen Z. It means creating digital experiences with physical utility. As a sports brand, you know that most of your Gen Z audience is on digital platforms but you need to reward them with something tangible to pull them in.

We recently did a partnership with the Fan Controlled Football League that was a great example of this. We digitized the FCF’s team jerseys and made them digital collectibles to wear on avatars in Stadium Live.

Fans could go into a livestream where we had athletes doing Q&A’s and interacting with our users. Fans were rocking their merch and showcasing their fandoms in a digital world, but were also able to physically interact with them in a unique way that brought them closer to the Fan Controlled Football League.

Brands that want to earn true brand equity among Gen Z leading up to the World Cup need to bring experiences to their fans with real value. Brands that show they value their customers through their actions over words, always win.”

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Featured Image: Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock

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