Russian gas giant, Gazprom has an image problem that it hopes sponsorship of football will help overcome. Its approach is a case study in using soft branding initiatives to spread its influence
Around every major sports final, the argument against sponsors getting a huge ticket allocation – at the expense of ‘genuine’ fans – runs like clockwork across social media as soon as the competing teams are announced.
But when 500 UEFA Champions League final tickets are given to youth football teams from across Europe – all of whom are promoting the sport as a means to spread friendship, tolerance, equality and a healthy lifestyle – few could argue with Russian energy giant Gazprom’s allocation strategy for the showpiece in London last month.
For those of you who are unaware of Gazprom, it is the sole producer of liquefied natural gas in Russia, and it controls the world’s largest natural gas reserves. It also holds a significant position in Europe, owning the world’s largest gas transmission network, the Unified Gas Supply System of Russia, which is over 160,000 kilometres in length.
In the first year of its UEFA Champions League sponsorship, a final involving two German clubs, played in London, was a combination Gazprom could have only dreamt of when signing its last minute deal in July 2012. The company has been looking to grow its share of the UK market for just under a decade, and Germany – where it has a 40 per cent market share of the gas market – is a crucial territory for the company, and one where it has been active in football sponsorship since 2006 through a shirt deal with Bundesliga club Schalke.
With Franz Beckenbauer as its ‘Football for Friendship’ figurehead, Gazprom invited youth teams from eight European countries – the UK, Germany, Serbia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovenia, Greece and Russia – to London for the game, using the day of the final to bring them together at a forum where the values of the project were celebrated. A letter outlining the initiative’s principles was also signed by representatives, including Beckenbauer, and sent to FIFA president Sepp Blatter, UEFA president Michel Platini and International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, before the kids were transported to Wembley for a once-in-a-lifetime experience to see Bayern Munich narrowly edge out Borussia Dortmund.
In a way, Gazprom’s activation was low-key compared to its Champions League sponsor peers; Heineken painted 50 London pubs green in the build-up, adidas set up a ‘laboratory’ in London where football legend Zinedine Zidane discussed nextgeneration football technology; and UniCredit presented a tour of the trophy that travelled the continent in the month before the final.
However, Vyacheslav Krupenkov, senior managing director of Gazprom’s operations in Germany, said the Russian company’s Champions League final sponsorship activation and Football for Friendship initiative isn’t about a grand public show, it is about planting a more subtle seed to show the world that Gazprom isn’t the “monster” that many people think it is.
“This is the first year of our Champions League sponsorship and the first time Gazprom has invested in sport on such an international basis,” he told SportBusiness International at the event.
“As you know, sponsorship isn’t just about the money; it’s not just about paying to be a sponsor, it is about creating values…[our team] has put in a lot of effort to make Gazprom better known across the continent.
“We want to show the world that Gazprom is not just about money, and it’s not a monster as it is often depicted by Western mass media; it is a large, global, socially-responsible company with values.”
With the world’s attention turning to Russia in the lead-up to it hosting world football’s showpiece in five years time, it’s a good time for that seed to start sprouting.