Branding Observations at the 2019 Cup of Nations: My Three Key Take Aways
Updated: Apr 29
The Africa Cup of Nations Football (okay, soccer if you must) tournament, AFCON, is the premier mega event on the continent, and easily its the most valuable sports asset. I use the term mega event to describe an event so large and complex, it requires an entire nation to host and secure it successfully. The 2019 edition of the biennial tournament was hosted in four cities across Egypt from June 21st through July 19th, and featured 24 nations for the first time since its inception in 1957. For African nations, the tournament provided a visible and powerful platform to market and project the country’s brand reputation to a global audience largely unfamiliar with the destination value of these nations. For organizers, it was an opportunity to showcase its signature event worthy of category expansion for creating new sponsorship revenue streams.
Two key areas at this year’s tournament were left largely unresolved. First, is the AFCON brand undervalued as a sports property, given its signature talent and massive reach? Next, did nations leverage the unprecedented interest and global exposure of this event to elevate their country's brand reputation? Here are my three (3) marketing and branding observations from the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations.
Countries Failed to Leverage AFCON to Promote or Enhance Country Brand Reputation
A nation that fails to brand itself, will have it branded for them, shaped by visitor impressions and media perceptions. The AFCON offered a platform to control the narrative value of the respective nation brands, but regrettably, they mostly fell short. For many countries in the region, sport and sports events, remains a pitch performance concept, where wins are judged by final score on the field. Event outcomes are measured from pre defined key performance indicators (KPI’s), off the field, and appraised for value long after the final whistle.
At this year's AFCON, Countries had no clear plan for marketing to the global audience following players known as much in Europe as they are in Africa.
Consider this. The stars at this year’s AFCON play important roles in high value European clubs, such as reigning European Champions Liverpool, (Mo Saleh and Sadio Mane) current English Premier League Champions Manchester City (Riyad Mahrez), and Arsenal (Alexander Iwobi), which Forbes Magazine lists as the 7th most valuable team brand in all of sports. Both the individual players and club sides have massive social media footprints in the tens of millions, which translates to a wider in the AFCON beyond continental boundaries.
Yet despite this high demand and a captive audience, nations failed to recognize the power of the platform for introducing, improving or reimagining their respective brand reputations. With the exception of South Africa and Brand SA, which held a singular breakfast event at the Cairo Marriott, there was little else in the area of nation branding or deliberate promotional activity of distinction. There were no hospitality houses, symposiums, forums nor briefings, which is where the real value could have been harnessed.
For instance, East African countries rely on tourism receipts as a primary revenue engine, however, very little was done to promote the sector, along with investment or trade potential in these countries. The African nations experiencing an economic renaissance under new leadership with a burgeoning middle class failed to promote market readiness and appeal to potential investors. Starter conversations relative commercial opportunities, tax incentives, import waivers, and access to skilled labor, were largely absent on the sidelines at this year’s tournament. Going forward, nations should consider the Ministries of Information, Culture & Tourism, Education and Commerce & Industry, as vital tenants of successful participation at future AFCON events or any major event which provides a positive branding opportunity. Projecting a nation’s economic interest should be a stated imperative at future tournaments, and not an afterthought, or worse, a complete abdication as was unfortunately the case this year.
Giving Title Sponsorship is Very Unusual for Mega Events
Irrespective of the vertical relationship between sponsorship and brand, it is very rare to cede title sponsorship for a sports property considered to be a mega event like the Africa Cup of Nations. There are exceptions but the financial benefits need to be significant, activations robust, and circumstances unique.
Which is why it seems unusual that the Confederation of African Football, CAF, has ceded title sponsorship for AFCON to the French multinational oil giant Total, which has a presence in 40 African countries and an 80-year history on the continent. In 2016, the company signed an eight-year partnership with the Confederation of African Football (CAF), reportedly worth $116 M, according to veteran sports journalist Osasu Oabayiuwana. The agreement principally includes ten continental tournaments through 2024, with the option for a 4 year extension. Indeed, having a major partner is essential for the growth of CAF and its associated properties, but giving title for a decade for its premier mega event appears to be a stretch. There are two troubling aspects about this.
First, by titling its premier brand as the “Total Africa Cup of Nations”, it runs the risk of discouraging potential sponsors who might have been willing to pay a premium for access to a growing African market, but unwilling to place their brand in a “secondary” position. It should be noted that according to the group, Focus Economics, Africa is home to six of the world’s top fifteen fastest growing economies. While I am not in any way privy to discussions between CAF and its partners, this arrangement seems to undervalue the AFCON brand individually, even where it provides visibility for its lesser known brands..
The other area of concern for titling a mega event like AFCON, is that associated brands who are willing to partner, may attenuate activation programs if title sponsorship has been fulfilled. This adversely impacts property exposure when programs are suppressed, limiting access to potential new followers within a growing property.
CAF Should Consider Sponsorship Realignment and B-2-B Partnerships
In sponsorship parlance,’ The Olympic Partnership program,TOP, is considered the gold standard for event sponsorships, carefully aligning partnerships with brand image and needs. For CAF, it should consider category realignment to accord with the growth sectors on the continent. For example opening categories in tourism, automotive, hospitality and beverages might be worthy of consideration. Additionally, it should broaden its sponsorship portfolio to include business to business (B-2-B) organizations in the region. Key industry segments such as construction, agriculture, heavy equipment, hospitality and management consulting are important growth sectors across Africa. By engaging B-2-B partnerships, it subsidizes the costs of staging events, offers professional efficiency in its delivery and projects the CAF brand as much more credible and attractive to prospective partners. Developing these horizontal partnerships in the business sector offers high yield and minimal risk.
The elephant in the room obviously, is the reputation of the CAF as a crisis ridden organization unable to govern itself to acceptable global standards. This impression (or reality) needs to be reversed in order to have any chance of sponsorship growth for the CAF brand, and for it to recognize its full revenue potential.
Overall, the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations was an unqualified hosting success. The Egyptians managed a brilliant tournament, with its world class stadiums and superior tourism infrastructure. The country effectively used the AFCON as an audition for hosting a future Olympic Games or World Cup, and showed they can secure an event of this magnitude, mostly empty stadiums notwithstanding. The next AFCON is in 2021 in Cameroon, and will once again offer nations an opportunity to market, brand and project possibilities to a global audience yearning for a good story out of Africa. Let’s see if they make the pitch.