World Cup Battle of the Brands

With the samba showcase in Brazil in full swing, FFT’s Darren Goon takes a closer look at the sporting brands involved at the 2014 FIFA World Cup and their innovations…

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In the final Group G match involving the USA and Germany, there was more to it than just securing a qualification to the knockout stages. It was also the physical embodiment of the commercial battle between the world’s two biggest sporting brands, represented by their country of origin. The USA (sponsored by Nike) lost to Germany (supplied by Adidas) by a Thomas Müller goal, but still progressed to the next round thanks to the result of Portugal-Ghana match favouring them.

The Germans may have won on the pitch, but off it, they are neck-in-neck with their biggest corporate rivals. Both brands have invested heavily in preparation for the World Cup, but only one truly invested in the World Cup and that’s Adidas. They have been official FIFA partners since 1970, and last year signed an extension of that contract through 2030.

However, Nike are catching up. It’s been twenty years since the Swoosh debuted on the international stage at the 1994 World Cup and they’ve steadily reduced the three stripes’ advantage over the years. According to Bloomberg, they earned $1.9 billion from football in 2013, only $500m behind Adidas’ estimated revenue for the same period. And for the first time, Nike are kitting out the most teams at a World Cup – 10. In comparison, Adidas have nine (down from 12 at the 2010 edition) and Puma supply eight, with the remaining teams being sponsored by smaller brands like Uhlsport and Joma.

While one way of ensuring optimum brand visibility is by having your logo on as many kits as possible, quality still trumps quantity. Adidas and Nike each have three teams in the quarter-finals, with Burrda (Belgium) and Lotto (Costa Rica) rounding it up.


The incumbent in the apparel war, Official FIFA Partners Adidas are the only sporting brand visible on pitch-side advertising boards and producing attire for the referees, volunteers, and a multitude of official World Cup merchandise. They also provide the ball, arguably the most important component of the World Cup, the Brazuca. It even has its own Twitter account (@Brazuca).

While Nike supply the most boots at this World Cup, Adidas are currently leading the overall scoreboard with their AdiZero F50, outscoring Nike’s Mercurial Vapor 42-38 by the end of the Round of 16. Colombia’s James Rodriguez currently leads the race for the Golden Boot with five goals, all scored in Adidas AdiZeros.

The three stripes also have the benefit of having their main ambassador, Lionel Messi still in the competition. Messi almost single-handedly dragged Argentina to the quarter-finals, collecting four goals and as many man-of-the-match awards; while Ronaldo-powered Portugal limped home early, affected by injury to their main man and a relatively tougher group.


“Adidas back athletes. Nike back athletic celebrities.” was Bloomberg’s Brendan Greeley’s brilliant summary of their endorsement strategies.

Nike’s player ambassadors tend to not just be fine athletes, but characters as well, which contrasts with Adidas’ serious, business-first roster, being headlined by Messi, Philipp Lahm, and Mesut Ozil. Take the Brazil national team for example: Nike’s main man is Neymar, a flash, colourful individual on and off the pitch, while Adidas look to Oscar, equally talented but quietly understated.

They have a Hulk too

For years, the Swoosh have formed their ad campaigns around alpha-extrovert Ronaldo. With a diamond on his ear and a twinkle in his eye, the Portuguese forward’s star power is exceeded only by his scoring ability. He’s recently been joined by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose larger-than-life personality has seen him being moulded into football’s Chuck Norris, via hyperbolic videos and the #DaretoZlatan hashtag.

On the other hand, Adidas’ most colourful character was Luis Suarez, until he bit Giorgio Chiellini, subsequently receiving a ban from football and removal from all Adidas promotional material, but not before some industrious fans took advantage of a poster of Suarez to take some topical photos. Hey, bad publicity is still publicity.

But what does this have to do with football? Locked out of official stadiums and stores due to Adidas’ deal with FIFA, Nike have had to come up with creative ways to make an impression, often leveraging on their player ambassadors’ force of personality to produce fun, exciting viral commercials that are set in a global tournament not dissimilar to the World Cup, but never expressly mentioning it by name.

Nike sponsor six of the world’s top ten marketable footballers, ranked by sports marketing research experts Repucom based on their social media reach and global awareness, and all six of them (and more) star in their four-minute long extravagant pre-World Cup ad, “Winner Stays” followed by an animated short titled “The Last Game”.

Both Nike ads have racked up a combined total of 145 million YouTube views at the time of writing, more than double Adidas’ totals from their three World Cup adverts.


The third wheel in all this, Puma, arguably pioneered the art of ambush marketing. At the 1970 World Cup, Brazilian legend Pele famously stopped the referee and requested to tie his shoelaces right before the starting whistle of a match, giving the watching world a glimpse of his new Puma boots. It’s fair to say that Adidas will never let that happen at a FIFA tournament again.

If you don’t stand out at the World Cup, you stand still. Without the advertising budget of the “big two”, Puma have taken a leaf out of Nike’s book, reviving their Tricks brand (originally launched in 2006) with a mismatched pair of boots.

The right boot’s pink, the left’s light blue, so it is virtually impossible for you to miss it. With an emphasis on visual acuity, Puma’s players stand out on the pitch. Regardless of whether you love it or hate it, you’re talking about it, and that’s what matters to Puma.

They’ve also caught the eye with form-fitting team jerseys that look good on professional players (hello, Edinson Cavani’s pectorals) but less so on fans. The reason? PWR ACTV technology combines athletic taping (similar to Kinesio Tape) with compression fabric that are meant to stimulate players’ muscles via “micro massages” on the skin.

The Rest

And what of the smaller brands? It hasn’t all been good news. Before the World Cup, Uhlsport had to fend off accusations from Iran’s manager and players of supplying insufficient kits for the tournament, and that the ones that were available shrank when washed. Ecuador (Marathon) and Honduras (Joma) were eliminated in the first round. According to reports, Burrda stand to be replaced as Belgium’s kit supplier by Adidas after the World Cup, so they would best leverage on their exposure gained from reaching the quarter-finals while they still can. 

On the bright side, Lotto have enjoyed an Indian summer, riding on the coattails of Costa Rica’s surprising journey to the quarter-finals, the furthest they’ve ever gone. Having started their association with Los Ticos at the 1990 World Cup, the Italian brand has seen sales of Costa Rica jerseys rise 20-fold, and are struggling to keep up with demand.  It appears that patience does pay off.


Adidas designer Gerald Kuhtz told Soccerbible, “Events like the World Cup are to us what Paris is to the fashion industry or Geneva to the car industry – a runway of the best designs and looks.” Well, they certainly subscribed to that notion, producing some kits that were excellent (Germany) and shocking (Japan away) in good measure.

There was also the issue of Adidas switching Germany, Spain, and Argentina’s contrast-coloured shorts to a uniform colour such as all-white for Germany and all-red for Spain to conform to FIFA regulations that states “Each team shall inform FIFA of two different and contrasting colours (i.e. strips). One predominately dark and one predominately light for its official and reserve kit.”

In the boot department, Adidas introduced the Battle Pack, a collection of five boots sporting a similar black-and-white motif that is silo-specific, inspired by war paint and the markings of deadly predators.

Malaysian players at the Adidas Battle Pack Collection launch

While its design is attention-grabbing up close, they aren’t that conspicuous from afar, which can’t be said for Puma and Nike’s offerings.

The 2010 World Cup’s opening game between South Africa and Mexico (two Adidas teams) was crashed by Siphiwe Tshabalala’s opening goal, scored in silvery-gray (officially called “Mach Purple”)/orange Nike boots from the Elite Series. They continued to be the most visible boots on South African pitches that summer, stealing much of the spotlight from Adidas’ bland black/yellow series of boots and giving Nike a massive presence on the pitch without having to pay millions for the official partner status.

This year, the Swoosh have continued their visual assault, standing out in reddish-orange and yellow footwear that contrast greatly against the green pitch. The tournament also saw the debut of Nike’s new Magista Obra and Mercurial Vapor Superfly IV, the first commercially-available woven football boots, featuring FlyKnit uppers and higher heel tops for a sock-like appearance and fit.  

Final words

As far as World Cup-winning teams go, Adidas teams lead with four titles, from four different national sides (Argentina, West Germany, France, and Spain) since 1978. Le Coq Sportif, Umbro, Nike, and Puma teams have won one apiece.

The 2010 World Cup Final came to an amicable end with regards to “the big two”. Spain beat the Netherlands 1-0, lifting the trophy after changing into fresh Adidas kits newly-updated with a gold star above their crest. However, the winning goal was set up by Cesc Fabregas and scored by Andrés Iniesta, both sporting boots from Nike’s uber-visible Elite Series. The brands shared the spoils then, and it remains to be seen if the 2014 Final will be so equal.