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Ian Paynton | The Vietnam opportunity

Home to superfans and voracious consumers of sports content, Vietnam has great potential for the sports industry. But it’s got to be approached with tact, says Ian Paynton, co-founder of Hanoi-based content agency We Create Content.

Ian Paynton, co-founder, We Create Content

I’ve never seen anything like it. The streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City turned a sea of red as men, women and children raced around on motorbikes, cars and even tractors, waving the national flag and honking horns until the early hours.

You’d be forgiven for thinking Vietnam had won the World Cup. But no. The U22 men’s football team had just struck gold at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games with a 3-0 win against Indonesia.

For Vietnamese fans, it doesn’t have to be the first team, or the world stage, for the whole country to “đi bão” – or “storm the streets”– in a collective outpouring of joy.

The chaotic scenes of a “đi bão” celebration point towards an opportunity for sports brands that can tap into this passion.

Sports consumption

The emotion that spilled onto the streets during a streak of unprecedented football success is one thing, but sports fans in Vietnam are also voracious consumers of sports media in normal times.

A report from Indochina Research found that the broadcast of the 2018 World Cup final garnered a 71.43-per-cent television audience share in Hanoi. The match was broadcast on free-to-air and cable pay-television channels. This is a huge figure considering Vietnam did not even play at the tournament. By comparison, television coverage in the UK of the Uefa Euro 2020 final featuring England against Italy achieved an 82-per-cent share.

The Vietnamese are savvy digital media consumers. With 61 million smartphone users, it’s very much a mobile- and video-first market.

Local influencer Anh Quan found it economically viable to secure rights to stream Euro 2020 highlights on his personal YouTube channel. Following a surge in use during the pandemic, 15 per cent of social media users say they now can’t live without TikTok.

Population size and youth have long been cited as strengths of the market. What is also promising is the growing middle class. According to a McKinsey report, another 36 million people may join Vietnam’s “consuming class” by 2030, when one in five of the population may be spending more than US$30 per day.

In a survey by We Create Content, 51.75 per cent of football fans said they would be willing to pay for access to exclusive content and genuine merchandise from their favourite foreign football club.

A sports-mad, digital-first population with money to spend signals opportunity for sports brands but, as with any emerging market, there are unique challenges to succeeding in Vietnam.

The opaque business environment is one issue – Vietnam is ranked 70th on the World Bank’s ease of doing business report. And while incomes are increasing, the average monthly per capita income in 2020 was still less than US$200.

Street celebrations in Hanoi after the Vietnamese men’s team secured gold in the 2019 SEA Games

Dos and don’ts

Several international sports brands have already jumped on the Vietnam opportunity, and their experiences provide some useful guidelines for those who follow.

Dutch football club SC Heerenveen’s social media following soared after signing Vietnamese international Doan Van Hau on loan, with their Facebook follower count increasing by 200,000 just three days after the signing was announced. The club got criticised on social media for never actually playing Van Hau.

Spanish football club Cadiz CF has effectively used Vietnamese language video content to win local support.

The German Bundesliga tapped into local trends by hiring an editorial team on the ground. The league’s “Bundesliga players speak Vietnamese” video series earned coverage from national news websites such as Vietnamplus, Kenh14, Bongdaplus, VTV and Zing.

Manchester City demonstrated awareness of how to appeal to Vietnamese consumers with simple fan club growth announcements – a move that cost nothing yet engendered considerable loyalty from Vietnamese fans thrilled to feel part of such a huge global club brand. City also produced a mini-documentary series about grassroots football in Vietnam with local partner SHB Bank and regional media partner Dugout.

Whatever brands choose to do in Vietnam, it is important to be culturally sensitive.

Coca-Cola slipped up with a campaign that was deemed “vulgar” by government officials. Spanish football’s LaLiga faced backlash on their social channels in 2019 when they wished Vietnamese fans a happy Lunar New Year using a social card including Chinese language.

Gaming opportunity

Esports and gaming is an intriguing area of growth to consider for sports brands in Vietnam.

In 2020, esports in Vietnam generated revenues of $947.1m (€830m) and audiences totaling 435.9m. The market saw 42 per cent of gamers playing on mobile and 9.2 per cent playing the NBA 2K game, according to a report from Vero.

With the highest percentage of adult gamers in the world – 85 per cent according to the same report – targeting gamers who are sports fans could be a creative route to market for global brands.

Vietnamese gamers spend a weekly average of 3.1 hours watching esports tournaments, which is just 30 minutes shy of the weekly average for watching traditional sports programmes.

The prospects for sports brands in Vietnam are as exciting as any “đi bão” celebration and the journey to market will most likely be just as chaotic.

But one thing is true: unique opportunities to build relationships with super fans and sports media consumers await the savvy and culturally sensitive brands brave enough to be among the first movers in this rapidly maturing market.

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