When the last fan files out of Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium on Sunday after the soccer World Cup final, Vladimir Putin can bask in the knowledge that his objective for the tournament has been met: Russia has, for now at least, been rebranded.
After years when the dominant themes reaching global audiences about Russia have been associated with violence and diplomatic conflict, the tournament was a five-week stream of positive images being beamed to billions of televisions and smartphone screens.
That does not neutralize the issues for which the Kremlin is widely criticized. Those include its annexation of Ukraine, its treatment of sexual minorities, its bombing campaign in Syria and allegations, denied by Moscow, that it assassinates its opponents on foreign soil.
But the upbeat images from the World Cup will, according to specialists in the branding power of sports events, significantly improve Russia’s global reputation and produce dividends in terms of investment and tourism.
“It’s exactly what President Putin would have wanted,” said Jon Tibbs, whose consultancy helped Russia successfully bid for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. “Just on the whole breaking down the stereotypes of Russia … it has done immeasurable good.”
In some ways, rebranding Russia was easy. Perceptions of the country, especially in the West, were so negative that exposure to the reality was likely to show that things were less bad than many people believed.
However, organizational slip-ups can spoil positive impressions. Specialists in the field hold up the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, with its rickety infrastructure and political turmoil, as an example of how such events can backfire.
Russia avoided those pitfalls. The infrastructure was delivered on time and to a high standard. Transport and tickets for fans ran smoothly. There was no fan violence. And ordinary Russians embraced the spirit of the occasion.
“This is, as it currently stands, a poster child of a nation rebranding its international image through the hosting of a major event,” said Michael Payne, a former head of marketing for the International Olympic Committee who now runs a consultancy that advises the sports and entertainment industry.
Russia’s previous turn at hosting a global sporting event, the Sochi Olympics was – despite some logistical glitches – also deemed a success at the time.
A day after the closing ceremony, Putin said the event had shown “the whole world that we are a friendly country that knows how to welcome guests and throw a party.”
But any positive glow was extinguished when, days later, Russia sent in troops to annexe Ukraine’s Crimea region.
Up to that point, the Sochi games successfully changed negative perceptions about Russia. “And then it got completely derailed by the Ukraine fiasco,” said Payne.
When an investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency found evidence of state-sponsored doping by Russia at the games, included tampered samples being smuggled through a hole in a laboratory wall, the event was thoroughly tarnished. Russia denies systematic doping.
Return on investment
The Russian state will have spent 683 billion rubles ($11 billion) on preparing for and hosting the World Cup, according to the government.
It forecasts World Cup-related spending will add 1 per cent to gross domestic product (GDP) over the period 2013-2018. A deputy prime minister said she anticipated a 15 per cent lift in foreign tourism next year. Businesses from brewers to television retailers say they have benefited.
Arkady Dvorkovich, chairman of the Russia-2018 organizing committee, said more important than the contribution to GDP was the improved image. “The result is that Russia has a different reputation,” he said.
Because the reputational impact is intangible, it is difficult to accurately calculate if Russia is getting a good return on its investment in the World Cup.
People who work in the field say, though, that the impact is real and will, over time, translate into hard cash.
“There will be economic impact studies and surveys that will be done that will show that business investment will pick up on the back of this,” said Tibbs, the sports marketing consultant, whose firm has not worked on the 2018 World Cup.
“International companies that were afraid of investing in Russia or have pulled out, or were going to pull out, will change their minds and think: ‘It’s nowhere as near as bad as we thought.’”