Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – China may not be sending a team to Qatar, but Chinese companies will be popular sponsors at the 2022 World Cup.
Chinese brands are the tournament’s biggest sponsors – topping even the list of American companies, which include iconic names like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Budweiser.
According to Global Data, a London-based data analytics and consulting firm, China’s sponsors have raised $1.395 billion for the competition, which runs from November 20 to December 18, surpassing the $1.1 billion that issued by US companies.
Broken down on an annual basis, the data says the Chinese sponsorship is valued at $207 million a year, compared to deals from Qatar and the US at $134 million and $129 million, respectively.
China’s competitive dominance reflects its brands’ aspirations to expand their exposure abroad to a level commensurate with their growing size and reach.
The rise of Chinese sponsors also aligns with President Xi Jinping’s dream of turning China, which took part in the only World Cup in 2002, into a soccer powerhouse through ambitious plans and goals such as tenfold the number of schools with soccer fields by 2025 .
While the four Chinese sponsors of the 2022 tournament – Wanda Group, Vivo, Mengniu Dairy and Hisense – have relatively little visibility outside of their home country, they are huge corporations with multi-billion dollar revenues and thousands of employees.
Wanda Group, a multi-industry conglomerate founded in 1988, and Mengniu, one of China’s largest milk producers, have each made multiple Fortune 500 listings.
“The World Cup works for Chinese companies both outside and inside China as football has a strong following among Chinese audiences,” Martin Roll, a Singapore-based branding expert and consultant, told Al Jazeera.
“It clearly shows that these Chinese brands are playing on a global scale and shows that they matter to Chinese audiences. Being a sponsor and marketing partner of the World Cup is only for a few brands that can afford it, so just being a part of it is a testament to the Chinese brands’ aspirations.”
Chinese companies are hoping that association with the beautiful game can help them shed negative perceptions about the “Made in China” label, said Paul Temporal, branding expert at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School.
“Sports sponsorship enables Chinese brands to connect with a global audience that shares a universal love of sports experiences in emotional settings. Football transcends all cultural boundaries and offers tremendous global reach,” Temporal told Al Jazeera.
“Chinese brands have learned from Western peers that while sports sponsorship is expensive to gain access to the world’s best events, it delivers long-term results for both the brand owners and the nation. Global brands are brand ambassadors for China and, if successful in terms of global market share, can have a positive impact on national brand image.”
By far the largest Chinese sponsor in Qatar is Wanda Group, one of FIFA’s seven official partners – the highest level of sponsorship – alongside Coca-Cola, Adidas, Hyundai, Kia, Qatar Airways, QatarEnergy and Visa.
The Beijing-based conglomerate, which invests in real estate, entertainment, media, manufacturing and financial services, has pledged $850 million under a 15-year deal that will cover all World Cup events through 2030, according to Global Data.
Vivo, a consumer electronics company based in the southern city of Dongguan, is spending an estimated $450 million under a six-year deal that includes the 2017 Confederations Cup and the 2018 World Cup.
Mengniu, which is headquartered in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia, and Hisense, an electronics maker based in Qingdao, have pledged to spend an estimated $60 million and $35 million, respectively.
“Many Chinese companies have grown globally by acquiring foreign brands. Lenovo and Haier have taken this approach in addition to their own brand building,” Carlos Torelli, professor of marketing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Al Jazeera, referring to China’s popular PC and consumer electronics brands.
“This makes it easier to penetrate global markets with an established brand. However, many other Chinese brands are trying to build their own brands, and events like the World Cup are perfect for raising awareness among large audiences. Attending these events may facilitate future market expansion.”
While solar panel maker Yingli Solar became China’s first World Cup sponsor at the 2010 tournament in South Africa, Chinese companies began to publicize their presence at the 2018 competition in Russia in a big way.
Chinese companies filled the funding gap after leading brands including Sony, Emirates and Johnson & Johnson shut down FIFA in 2014 and 2015 amid allegations of corruption in the bid process for the tournaments in Russia and Qatar.
Shortly after Wanda Group signed its mega-sponsorship deal in 2016, company founder Wang Jianlin said the controversy presented an “opportunity” for Chinese companies that may never have had the chance to support the tournament before, “even if we wanted to”.
No less than seven Chinese companies sponsored the 2018 competition and spent an estimated $835 million – far more than US and Russian brands.
Chinese companies maintained their strong showing at Copa América 2021, South America’s biggest soccer tournament, providing three of the four official sponsors.
Kuaishou, TCL Technology and Sinovac shouldered the bulk of sponsorship duties after several major sponsors, including Mastercard and Diageo, pulled out amid controversy over the health risks to players from COVID-19.
Ahead of Qatar 2022, Chinese brands have again shown themselves to be more reluctant to engage in human rights debates than their corporate peers elsewhere.
Unlike Budweiser, Adidas, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, 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 deaths and injuries during World Cup preparations to compensate.
Qatar’s government said it has made “significant progress” on labor reforms and continues to work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to “ensure these reforms are wide-ranging and effective.” Qatari officials have also dismissed allegations of corruption in their World Cup bid.
“Many global brands are careful not to get into a political debate about their endorsement, so they may have been more reluctant to join as sponsors,” Roll said.
However, Nigel Currie, director of sports marketing and sponsorship agency NC Partnership, said major sponsors from around the world ultimately chose to hold on to the tournament because of the huge business opportunities it presented.
“There are controversies surrounding hosting the World Cup in Qatar. However, would Coca-Cola pull out and risk Pepsi stepping in? Currie told Al Jazeera.
“Would Visa relinquish its position and allow Mastercard to return? The motor vehicle category is extremely competitive and many global automakers would like to take over Hyundai Kia. The same argument can be made for several other product categories. The simple fact is that Worlds deals are made across multiple Worlds and are designed to lock out competitors and give big brands an exclusive and elite opportunity to reach billions of people around the world.”
Josh Gardner, the CEO and co-founder of China-focused consulting firm Kung Fu Data, said he expects Chinese brands to continue gaining traction internationally as they “look for ways to build a stronghold beyond their home country.”
“This is similar to a parallel trend where Chinese brands are signing sponsorship deals with Hollywood,” Gardner told Al Jazeera, noting product placements involving Vivo, instant messenger Tencent QQ and e-commerce firm Jingdong.
“Remember the many Marvel and DC movies with labels like Vivo and QQ pasting the Jingdong logo over fictional skyscrapers on the big screen.”