Something’s afoot in soccer’s ad wars.
Several big brands this week are scoring sneaky yet sizable World Cup points, dodging global soccer-licensing cops and avoiding massive fees while still tackling fans on the sly.
As quiet as a Nike swoosh, that Oregon-based shoemaker, along with Pepsi, Samsung and a cluster of companies are applying an age-old advertising trick called “ambush marketing” to hawk their wares by playing outside traditional sponsorship lines, according to marketing experts.
The game is simple: Those brands cannot show World Cup logos or imagery in their TV commercials because they are not one of the six official "partners" of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the sports's governing body.
Adidas and Coca-Cola each paid FIFA an estimated $100 million to legally embed World Cup emblems but Nike and Pepsi did not — yet those two non-sponsors are airing soccer-drenched spots featuring Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, Colombia’s Radamel Falcao, and other international star players.
Can a casual fan discern which of those four companies is formally affiliated with FIFA, and which is not?
And more importantly: Do they care?
FIFA officials have not yet responded to a request for comment made by NBC News.
"It is nearly always smarter to conduct an ambush or guerrilla campaign via media and other activation vehicles on site at these big events with the fraction of the budget it would cost for the rights themselves," said Ray Bednar, president at Hyperion Marketing Returns in New York City.
"I cannot fathom the rationale for a brand the size of Coke or Visa to spend these sums of money in what is essentially a brand awareness play," Bednar said. "Yes, they are connecting the passion of the fan with their brand, but that can be done directly with a fraction of the money without paying the rights fees."
Nike has become known on Madison Avenue as a master of guerrilla slickness. During the 2012 London Olympics, numerous track athletes donned the company’s neon-yellow Volt kicks. The footwear earned nearly as much chatter as the gold-medal winners.
"Nike connects where it matters — clubs, federations as well as elite and everyday athletes, and we are part of football (soccer) 365 days a year," said Nike spokesman Brian Strong. "We are a sponsor of the CBF (the Brazilian Football Confederation) and and of 10 teams total at the World Cup, more than any other brand. Over half the players in the tournament are wearing Nike boots.
"The World Cup provides a huge energy moment for us as a football brand but our #RiskEverything campaign is not specific to the tournament, and we don't seek to associate ourselves as an event sponsor," Strong added.
What Nike does not say: Their blueprint to fly below the official sponsorship wire also gives the company a dash of pirate panache, experts say.
Now other brands are following their lead.
Check out the new soccer ads for Sony, a FIFA partner, and Samsung, which is not. The tech competitors slug it out in their commercials, each clearly aimed at World Cup lovers. Sony shows cheering, dancing fans using its gadgets in a bouncy ad. Samsung shows sliding, kicking stars using its gadgets in a booming ad.
Sign up for breaking news alerts from NBC News
"There are two reasons why a company might embrace a guerrilla campaign," said Tim Calkins, professor of marketing at Northwestern University. "First, it could help their brand and drive growth. Second, it might limit the impact of a competitor's sponsorship.
"Event organizers have to fight to protect sponsors. Companies will only pay big dollars to sponsor events if they are confident the investment will pay off. Guerrilla campaigns dilute the value of being an official sponsor," Calkins added.
Even a company like Beats, which drew a marketing red card from FIFA, is making bucks from that wrist slap, said Brian Quarles, an executive vice president at rEvolution, a Chicago-based sports marketing firm.
FIFA even banned the Beats By Dre headphones at World Cup stadiums this year — during matches and media events – because FIFA has a partnership with Sony. But all that some fans hear is this: World Cup players like the Beats headphones.
"It certainly seems that the brands using ambush or guerrilla tactics have been the ones receiving more attention around this World Cup," Quarles said.
"Sometimes it is more of a story not to be directly involved with the game, such as the case with Beats By Dre," he said. "That, in itself, grabs headlines and attention."
First published June 24 2014, 5:55 PM