5 ways to engage multicultural and immigrant communities through sports

5 ways to engage multicultural and immigrant communities through sports

November and December means FIFA World Cup 2022 for millions around the world. 64 matches. 32 teams. 28 days. One winner.

International favorites from South and Central America, world-class foes from Europe, spoilers from West Africa, and Asian opponents face off for soccer (fútbol) glory every four years. This year, the teams converge on Qatar, and for the first time the tournament occurs in November.

Marketing and communications teams worldwide have the opportunity to engage their audiences in World Cup-themed programming, leveraging the unifying factor of sports while harnessing the country pride that comes with such a magnificent display. In the United States, where nearly 45 million people are immigrants, there are unique opportunities to tap into both the enthusiasm that rallies soccer fans worldwide and the national pride that is showcased throughout the World Cup. In fact, marketers can tap into sports themes year-round to engage their consumers and audiences and make them take notice.

Immigrants in the U.S.

Immigrants represented nearly 14% of the U.S. population in 2019, with Mexicans as the largest group. Those from China and India were next most represented. Following were people from the Philippines, El Salvador, Vietnam, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, and Korea.

Most U.S. Hispanics are U.S.-born. Of the 60.5 million people in 2019 who self-identified as Hispanic or Latino, 33% (19.8 million) were immigrants and 67% (40.6 million) were native-born.

In 2019, approximately 78% (241 million) of all 308.8 million U.S. residents ages five and older, regardless of nativity, reported speaking only English at home. The remaining 22% (67.8 million) reported speaking a language other than English at home.

Among those who reported speaking a language other than English at home, 62% spoke Spanish. Other top languages were Chinese (including Mandarin and Cantonese, 5%); Tagalog (almost 3%); and Vietnamese, Arabic, French (including Cajun), and Korean (about 2% each).

The popularity of soccer

FIFA predicts that more than five billion people will watch the 2022 World Cup. According to FIFA, the 2018 World Cup final between France and Croatia reached an average live audience of 517 million viewers, with more than 1.1 billion people tuning in over its 90 minutes. A combined 3.572 billion viewers—more than half of the global population aged four and over—cumulatively watched the more than five dozen matches in 2018. The 2021 Super Bowl pales in comparison, with an average TV viewership of 91.6 million in the U.S. plus an estimated 30 to 50 million additional viewers around the world.

How marketers can lead through sports

There are great opportunities for marketers, companies, and governments to connect with audiences through sports—as long as it’s done with sensitivity and a full understanding of the audience. Even in soccer, there are tragedies and bad memories to be aware of, such as the stampede and subsequent violence we witnessed in Indonesia in October, the 1996 World Cup qualifier match between Guatemala and Costa Rica, and legacy losses to rivalry teams. Here are five tips for federal agencies who want to authentically engage multicultural and immigrant communities in the United States year-round, and especially during the World Cup.

Tip #1. Lead with people.

Multicultural communication is always about people. Identify players, coaches, or others related to the games who can be influencers for your campaign or carry your creative messaging. They can be engaged during the actual timeframe of the competition or in the weeks and days leading up to it. For best results, make sure the influencers can authentically relate to your issue or cause. And get creative how you make the people connection—a player from Mexico will likely appeal to Mexicans living in the U.S.; however, a community leader who hails from Mexico who showcases their love for the Mexican soccer team also will appeal to a Mexican audience. When people share their personal stories, they have strong influence with the community who identifies with them. For example, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the soccer federation in Argentina produced an emotional and motivational video inviting people to stay at home and to take care of themselves for the health and safety of others, using soccer terminology and engaging the national soccer team as the messenger.

Tip #2. Leverage national pride through colors.

Colors matter. They represent people and nations and are often expressed through their flags. Red, black, green, and yellow are primary colors across West Africa. Yellow and blue are in many of the flags across South America. Red has cultural meanings throughout Asian countries. Pull in these colors to get your audience’s attention and reinforce the messages that are most important for specific groups. For instance, Argentinians are easily attached to La Albiceleste (The White and Sky Blue), while Brazilians beam with pride when seeing their iconic yellow. Similarly, mascots can have a connection to audiences too—Ghanaians will recognize their Black Stars when used in campaigns, Moroccans love their Lions, Egyptians are aptly called the Pharaohs, and Ivorians celebrate les éléphants (the elephants) in addition to their easily recognizable orange and green colors.

Tip #3. Find common denominators.

During the World Cup, soccer is the unifying factor. Those who come from the international powerhouses will automatically take notice when you use soccer references in your marketing messages. Leverage them to share messages that highlight pride, passion, unity, and loyalty. The World Cup is so magical and powerful that it is able to go beyond politics, language, time zones, beliefs, races, and ethnicities. During the World Cup, relationships can be created, and it’s a great opportunity for federal agencies to step away from their governmental figure and encourage family connections, healthy and respectful competition, and the impact of play.

Remember that during the World Cup, communication flows at dramatic rates from home countries to the United States’ immigrant communities. Recognize that apps like WhatsApp and YouTube will see increased traffic. Leverage these additional communication opportunities by ensuring materials are developed for the channels used the most. And don’t forget that in-person events like watch parties may provide opportunities to engage with large groups.

Tip #4. Leverage memories and moments.

Testimonials from everyday people or local soccer legends create powerful messages. Every participating, and even non-participating, country lives the World Cup differently. Soccer maintains generational popularity—in immigrant families, country lore is passed along from grandparents to children experiencing their first World Cup. Recounting tournament successes showcases stories of national pride. Redemption stories are easily tied into historical stories of heartbreak. Marketers can revel in the drama and leverage those emotional connections—handballs, biting players, headers on goal seconds too late, unbooked yellow cards, and own goals all make for dramatic opportunities to connect with audiences, as long as there’s respect for the cultures and homage to the countries on the losing end. Tap into gatherings with loved ones, as families and friends gather for the holiday season, which usually only includes U.S. football – this year, immigrant families more focused on soccer can spend the holidays relishing the stories and memories as seen through the World Cup, and multiracial and blended families will have great opportunities to connect over a shared love of sports, whether it’s American or international football.

Tip #5. Use culturally appropriate language and phrases.

Soccer speaks a universal language, and of course the most commonly used word, regardless of country or audience, is GOAL! Mixing day-to-day words (not scientific or government-related) with soccer keywords will create interest for your audience. Keep in mind that not all soccer terms are standard across the border—for example, “soccer cleats” are called different things throughout South American countries, regardless of sharing a language. Delivering your message as a true reflection of your audience will make a great impact, and the right accent, tone, and timing are crucial. Adapt your message for each stage of the World Cup and you’ll create immediate value in the hearts and minds of your audience while expressing your true understanding and commitment to the audience and their story.

Sports can be a great unifier. With U.S. immigrants, the World Cup serves as an opportunity to make meaningful connections and develop messaging and materials that are authentic and genuine, evoking the emotion, pride, and passion that soccer brings out.

Alfonso Pernia, MBA, a Colombian native, knows that for South American boys and most Hispanic boys around the world, one of the first things they learn is to kick a ball—a soccer ball. As a small boy he dreamed of kicking that winning goal in a World Cup match. He fulfilled that dream and represented Colombia, playing in the Under 17 World Cup in Brazil in 1987. His team played Nigeria, Mexico, and Brazil, and no matter how different the players looked physically or how different the languages they spoke were, the boys were all connected by their love for soccer and the pride to represent their countries. Alfonso serves as a communications manager, primarily leading health education campaigns, engaging Hispanics/Latinos.

Vickie Gogo, MA, didn’t play soccer but instead played basketball as a kid. In high school, she began to combine her love for sports with her love for journalism. Throughout college, she covered black college sports, then launched a professional career as a sportswriter in the mid-1990s. Today, Vickie leads ICF’s Multicultural Communications Team.

ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
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Meet the authors
  1. Vickie Gogo, Senior Partner, Multicultural Communications

    Vickie is an expert in multicultural communications with more than 20 years of experience. View bio

  2. Alfonso Pernia, Multicultural Communications Manager

    Alfonso is a healthcare communications expert with more than 10 years of experience helping multicultural communities. View bio

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