What can the World Cup teach us about today’s society?

So that’s it, the World Cup is over. The silver living of our football come down is the fact that, for a couple of weeks, a nation united in hope and support behind a level-headed and united team. With over 30 million Brits* watching at least one game, I took a look at how brands and not-for-profits have engaged with football (even though it’s not coming home, this time). (*SOURCE: YouGov Profiles GB, July 2018)

What struck me above all is how football today is a lightning rod for social cohesion. A community standing behind talented figureheads with a shared goal is a powerful force for progress (yes, that pun was deliberate).

Spoiler alert: the killer combination is of the few inspiring the many, and the many holding the few accountable.

Kicking out prejudice

Let’s start with LGBTQ+ awareness. In the last few years there has been a marked shift in the football industry engaging with and embracing all sexualities and identities. Case in point, Stonewall has just won the BT Sports Industry award for its Rainbow Laces campaign. Last November, the entire Premier League wore their rainbow laces in a united show of support. In a sport that often seemed like the epitome of toxic masculinity, this was a significant and uplifting statement to make.

Look at race equality too. Going against the grain of rapid decline in demand for print media, Caricom, a magazine using football to chronicle the experience and challenges of being a black Briton today, is selling out. Grassroots initiatives that aim to give underrepresent groups access to football are thriving. Clubs are taking firmer action against fans using racist slurs at matches. It’s an encouraging climate of positive progress alongside zero-tolerance for bad behaviour.

Turning doubters into disciples

Football’s power to celebrate a person’s talent regardless of their background makes it a powerful tool for encouraging fair treatment of the disadvantaged. To quote Harry Kane, “each goal turns doubters into disciples”. Take the Homeless World Cup; which brings together 500 people from 63 teams representing 47 nations. For the players it’s about rebuilding confidence, forming new relationships and giving homeless people a sense of structure and belonging.

For the rest of us, it’s about seeing the person and not their disadvantage. And it’s a message we are ready and willing to hear; last year three million people tuned in to UniLad’s live stream of the event on the first day alone. Amnesty International are in their second year of running ‘Football Welcomes’ which celebrates the contribution of refugees to football. Participation has doubled from 2017 inaugural campaign to this year’s…

Standing up for ourselves

In the social media age, the paradigm for corporate accountability has fundamentally shifted. As such a bonded and high-profile community, footballers & their fans now carry the power and influence to challenge the ‘establishment’. Just look at how, under intense pressure from players and the public, FIFA backed down and allowed poppy armbands for Remembrance last year, having initially forbidden them…

Sharing triumph and tragedy

There are some fundamental human truths that are embodied in the world of football too. Like the unadulterated joy of the story of Leicester City’s triumphant season beating odds of 5000-1 to become Premier League champions. It wasn’t just because Gary Lineker had to present MOTD in his pants. The main thing is that we all love to see an underdog confound expectation.

At the other end of the human spectrum, it’s also a vehicle for us to process grief and loss. In the wake of the tragic airplane crash, in which the entire Chapecoense team were killed as they travelled to compete in the South American cup finals, a nation of fans came together in shock and mourning. It was one of those memories you wish was just a nightmare, but sadly, it was real. This led Brazil’s BluRadio to produce ‘The Game That Never Was’ – ninety minutes of compiled audio of Chapecoense’s match highlights edited together to create a full game. It was listened to 2.7 million people; many of the fans who felt like they had lost members of their family in the wake of the crash.

So how can we replicate these lessons in our own engagement with consumers?

This summer, football has acted as a magnifying glass for the societal trends that drive the choices we make. We think there are three killer learnings we can take from this for our storytelling:

  1. Celebrate human achievement

Part of the story for this year’s England squad has been how well the team of young players pulled together to overcome their lack of experience. They confounded our expectations – and that’s why we all got so behind them each stage that they progressed. Think too about the Thailand cave rescue – one team of experts coming together to save those little boys’ lives, against all the odds stacked against them. What are the stories you can tell which will inspire and engage your audience through the power of determination and belief?

  1. Leverage power of the crowd

We’ve all had that indescribable feeling of connection that comes from being among lots of like-minded people at a sporting fixture, or a concert. Whether it’s winning a bid to be a big company’s charity partner of the year, or petitioning MPs to change a piece of policy, don’t underestimate the power of bringing like-minded people together. Maybe you’re not all in the same stadium, but you can still help them feel connected, and stronger together. It’s in our nature to want to be part of something bigger than us; how can you leverage to make change happen?

  1. Having someone to believe in

Just as human beings have used stories since the dawn of time, so to we have looked to hero figures to help us make sense of the world. Just look at Gareth Southgate’s waist-coated renaissance. Or Stephen Fry’s advocacy of mental illness. Hell, even the cult of Beyonce. When society is grappling with change, we are drawn to the individuals who stand for something or stand out. Think about the London Marathon – each year around 40,000 people take part, but it’s the one person who dies when taking part that generates the biggest outpouring of public support.

So, what can your organisation learn from the World Cup? Who are your heroes, what stories of overcoming the odds can you tell – and what is the positive change that your community could make by coming together?