The 2018 FIFA World Cup was (arguably) more about stories than football. And brand owners and custodians can learn a thing or two from that.
“The old man took his cattle up the hill that morning in December 1991, because that’s what he did every day, rain or shine, winter or summer. He took his cattle up the hill that morning, and he never came back.
A handful of men in police uniforms arrested him. Whether or not they were legally police officers was moot, and it was also irrelevant: round these parts, power came from the barrel of a gun, not from a piece of paper.
The man’s crime was the same crime it always is in places riven by sectarianism: not being one of them. Being the other. Being the enemy. His crime was nothing he’d done: it was who he was. He was Croatian, they were Serbian. That was all there was to it.
The men took him and a few others to the nearby village of Jesenice, and there they were executed. The old man left behind a family whom he loved and who loved him: none more so than his six-year-old grandson with whom he shared a name and from whom he had been practically inseparable, the old man doting on the boy, the boy hero-worshipping his grandfather.
The name they shared was Luka Modric, and this Sunday that small boy, now 32, will lead his country out in the World Cup Final.
After his grandfather was murdered, Luka’s family’s house was burned down, and they had to live in a hotel for years: not an expensive comfortable one, but a basic, crumbling one in their hometown of Zadar. When the mortars fell, as they often did, young Luka would sit inside and wait them out: but when the all clear was given, he’d be off playing football in the hotel car park, sometimes with other kids, sometimes on his own.
He was a small kid: too small, as it turned out, to be taken on by the local bigwigs Hajduk Split. He ended up playing aged 18 in the Bosnian-Hercegovinan league for Zrinjski Mostar, which was where both team-mates and opponents discovered two things about this kid: that he had all the skills you could want, and that he could look after himself too.
Fast forward 15 years, through a journey that has taken him from Dinamo Zagreb via Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid. Even though he still looks like, in the unimprovable words of the Guardian’s Barney Ronay, ‘a little boy dressed as a witch’, he is now one of the best players in the world: a midfielder of fabulous talents, one of the very few who can bend time and space to his will.”
I read this story on British writer and journalist Boris Starling's Facebook page the day before the FIFA World Cup final between France and Croatia. Up until that point, I had been a staunch supporter of the French team. Luka’s story changed something for me. A part of me now wanted Croatia to win. I looked up other stories about Modric and the Croatians and found myself admiring the gritty, scrappy, determined underdogs that had emerged from the war-torn nation and taken down football giants like Argentina on their way to the finals. Listening to the social chatter around the World Cup, I realized that a whole lot of users on Facebook and Twitter had been similarly touched by Croatia’s story and were cheering them on.
It made me think a great deal about the power of stories and dig deeper into the conversations surrounding the tournament. This has been a World Cup of stories. The chatter in mainstream media and on social media has revolved as much around stories surrounding the teams as the football itself.
Everyone loves an underdog story. It’s the classical David Vs Goliath battle that is so ingrained in our psyches. We love to see a little guy go up against giants and prevail (or fall valiantly). Iceland’s story was the first underdog tale to captivate audiences early in FIFA 2018. A nation of just 345,000 people (about the same population as Honolulu) put together a team that beat England in the 2016 European Championship and then, with no stars on its roster, went on to become the smallest country to ever qualify for the World Cup finals. The Iceland league is semi-pro, which means that players have to hold day jobs to pay the bills. The Iceland coach Heimir Hallgrimson was a practicing dentist until recently and goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson is a part-time Director and editor!
Halldorsson’s story is fascinating. He grew up poor, dreamed of being a professional footballer since age 6, dislocated his shoulder at 14 and popped it five times in the following years, each time he returned to try and train as a footballer. Giving up his dream of football, he spent his youth making short films. He made a return to his dream at 20, rusty, chubby and benched. From there to becoming the first choice in goal for the world cup squad has been quite the journey for Halldorsson. His story and Iceland’s story did the rounds in the run up to the World Cup and captured viewers’ collective imagination. When Iceland held Argentina to a 1-1 draw in their opener, even some Messi fans were cheering the underdogs, not so much because of their prowess on the field but because of their story.
Croatia were the other team with a fascinating backstory and found supporters and fans by the droves. Their story had all the ingredients of a potboiler. From the harshest of realities, from a world of strife and loss and pain, against all odds rose a team of strong, determined men. They entered an arena dominated by giants and took the giants on gamely, matching them blow for blow, run for run, challenge for challenge. At the head of these men was a hero – a diminutive little man who had been written off time and time again, but who had prevailed and prospered and was now one of the finest gladiators and a great leader. He led his team to take the arena by storm and marched with fire and thunder to the final, winning hearts along the way. It was a great story. How could it fail? How could it not move people to cheer raucously for Luka Modric and Croatia? Their performance in the group stages, including their 3-0 drubbing of Argentina, added to the legend and cemented their place as the definitive underdog to back all the way to the final match against France. And then, at the final, another fascinating part of Croatia’s story showed up. The President Kolinda Grabar. She created a storm in the media and among fans of all nationalities and earned admirers even in the opposite camp with her vivacious personality, her support of the team, her strength, energy and beauty. And along with President Kolinda came her story. A graduate in English and Spanish literature, post-grad in international relations, Fulbright scholar, John Hopkins and Harvard alumnus, ex-army commando, ace marksman (markswoman?), ambassador to Canada, first woman to be NATO Assistant Secretary General, fluent in Croatian, English, Spanish and Danish and fairly adept in German, French, Russian and Italian. Known in NATO circle as ‘SWAMBO’ – she who must be obeyed! What a story! And the story came to life against the backdrop of the final match of FIFA 2018. She bought her own economy class ticket, put on a Croatian jersey, hugged the players with the warmth of a thousand suns. And the story became Croatia’s story – a nation of spontaneous, unconventional, brilliant upstarts who had risen from the harshest of conditions to make a bid for excellence and eminence on the world stage. Social media loved Kolinda and Modric and Croatia and cheered them on with the collective might of tens of millions of keyboards.
France had a powerful story of its own and the story gained traction as Les Bleus progressed in the tournament, reaching a crescendo on the day of the final and immediately following the French victory. One look at the French side, a casual listen to the names of the players, and the story takes hold of you. Djibril Sidibe. Samuel Umtiti. Adil Rami. Presnel Kimpembe. Lucas Hernandez. Paul Pogba. Blaise Matuidi. N’golo Kante. Steven Nzozi. Ousmane Dembele. And last but not the least, Kylian Mbappe. At least eleven players in the winning team are immigrants or children of immigrants. Countries of origin include Mali, Cameroon, Algeria, Spain, Morocco, Congo, Guinea, Angola, Mali and Mauritania. Many are Muslims. A third of the national team was born and raised in impoverished, ghettoized banlieues of Paris. Against the backdrop of rising right-wing anti-immigration rhetoric both in Europe and the US, this is a great win for immigration, for cultural and racial diversity. It is a great story and one that is being recognized and talked about extensively across media channels and social networks.
Kylian Mbappe’s story is at the heart of this larger story. He is the leading protagonist. The hero. Teenage genius. Youngest player since Pele to score in a World Cup Final. Son of a Cameroonian man and an Algerian woman. Amicable black teenager who high-fives pussy riot streakers on the field when he isn’t making one of his dazzling runs down the flank. Mbappe’s story has captured popular imagination like few others. “You want to troll French fascists?” writes Grégory Pierrot in a moving, conflicted essay titled Fear of a Black France. “Tell them the truth: the most French man in the world right now is a black kid called Kylian Mbappé.”
In the aftermath of the final, conversation in the public domain has not revolved around the technical brilliance of the French team or the grit and perseverance and boundless energy of the Croatian squad. I haven’t heard too many people talking about the finer points of the football game. Instead, there are countless articles hailing France’s win as one for diversity and immigration. There are articles about Kylian Mbappe and his backstory and how he is donating all his earnings from the World Cup to charity. There is a great deal of social chatter across Facebook and Twitter and in WhatsApp groups about President Kolinda Grabar and her story and how she was seen speaking to both Putin and Macron in fluent Russian and French respectively. About Luka Modric and the brave Croatians who were the real winners of the World Cup because of their courage and grit and resilience.
Because in the finals, I believe that football took a back seat. The French supported the French team. The Croatians supported Croatia. And the rest of us neutral viewers supported the story that appealed most to each of us. The morning after the final, I met a colleague at the coffee machine and he expressed his disappointment at Croatia’s loss. I asked him why he supported the Croatians and whether he believed they were the better team and without a moment’s hesitation, he said, “because they were the underdogs and I like underdogs.” Another friend told me about a conversation she had with her partner - a French national – soon after the match. He believes that the win is really good for France and will serve as a unifying force, given that even the anti-immigration voices on the French right are celebrating the victory. In the finals, the Gutsy Underdogs met the Mascots of Diversity. It was the clash of two compelling stories. And I daresay that’s what FIFA 2018 will be remembered for – the amazing stories of the two finalists.
Stories and Marketing
The story-centric nature of this World Cup holds a learning or three for all of us Brand owners and stewards battling for market share and mindshare in a fragmented and fiercely competitive landscape.
Stories are powerful. They change attitudes and behaviors. They unite; bring people together. They create passionate fans. They drive conversation and are eminently share-worthy. They take people beyond functional, rational and technical details of an issue. They create love.
People have always been primed for stories. It is the way we understand the world around us. And now, more than ever before, in the era of social media and incessant stimulation, stories are finding tremendous resonance among people. Nothing sticks like a good story. Nothing connects like a good story. To drive success, engagement and loyalty for their brands, Marketers and brand stewards need to look beyond conventional messaging strategies and find compelling stories to tell.
#Brandstories are the future. Does your brand have one? Does it have a universe of other mini stories surrounding the central story, that can inspire fans, get shared and discussed? Is your brand story interesting? Powerful? Compelling? Are you telling it well?