Unmatched Vibes: Brands Need To Get Involved in the Africa Cup of Nations

Thought Leadership

Football is the world’s most popular sport. To the 1.4 billion people on the African continent, the biennial Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON) is its grail. 

Despite its rich history and importance on the continent, the general perception of AFCON abroad is that the quality of football pales in comparison to other international tournaments, making it a mid-season distraction. Consequently, global interest – both from a viewer and brand perspective – has been low. Until now.

The latest edition, hosted in Cameroon from 9 January to 6 February 2022, bucked the trend. Major broadcasters picked up the tournament and fan conversations skyrocketed, powered by the rising stature of world class African players. 

So why didn’t more brands get involved? Research and Insight Analyst Saad Abukhadra takes a look at the importance of AFCON to players and fans, highlighting moments of magic from the tournament which brands could have engaged with.

The Stars Align
For the first time, the UK’s leading broadcasters came flocking. As well as Sky Sports screening all 52 AFCON matches live, the BBC provided a terrestrial stage for curious fans, carrying 10 games including the semi-finals and final. 

The familiarity of the teams helped. This year saw 40 Premier League players feature at AFCON, including social favourites Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané, and Riyad Mahrez, who each boast 48m, 9.9m, and 8.3m followers on social media respectively.

What followed was a surge in interest, with global mentions of AFCON rising from 1.4M in 2019 to 3.4M in 2022. This evidence was also seen specifically in the UK, with mentions of the tournament up +380%. 

So What Makes AFCON So Special?
Every team has a realistic chance of winning. Unlike the World Cup, which has been won by only eight countries, there have been 15 different AFCON winners, and another five countries who have reached the final.

This is the perfect recipe for reactive content, celebrating the unlikely heroes or the shocking defeats of tournament favourites. Interest in the tournament will also last the duration of the competition, meaning brands can have sustained levels of engagement throughout. 

Prior to AFCON 21 – the tournament kept its original branding despite being held the following year, much like EURO 2020 – you could bet a lot of people had never heard of Comoros. The tiny island nation off the east coast of Africa qualified for the first time in their history. An achievement alone for the minnow – almost the equivalent of winning the World Cup. 

Their feel-good storyline continued to the round of 16. On the way, they eliminated heavyweights Ghana with a 3-2 win, before narrowly losing 2-1 to hosts Cameroon. This was despite having a man sent off, seven minutes into a game which they played without their head coach and any recognized goalkeepers following a batch of positive Covid-19 tests. 

An iconic moment from the game against Cameroon saw Comoros left-back turned goalkeeper, Chaker Alhadhur, use sellotape to make the No.3 in place of the No.16 printed on his jersey. That jersey is now being auctioned for charity, with bidding already up to €100k. The world knows about them now.

This Tournament Means More
The commitment of the players says everything about the tournament’s importance. Ivory Coast players Max Gradel and Badra Ali Sangare both took the field mere days after mourning the loss of their fathers. Gradel, who had vowed to his father that he would make the tournament, scored the decisive goal against Equatorial Guinea in their tournament opener.

Daily life can be so hard for millions of people across Africa, but this tournament perfectly captures the unifying force of football. AFCON is an outlet for players to help fans forget about their troubles, come together, and experience their hopes and dreams. 

Brands can tap into this desire to connect through community management. Invite fans to share their passion for their national teams, and provide opportunities to extend their real life community, linking native populations and diasporas.

A Platform For Progress
Many players have used AFCON as a springboard to secure a move to European football and its associated riches. Mali striker Ibrahima Koné secured a move to Ligue 1 side Lorient after a successful individual tournament run of 3 goals in 4 games. These moments are a matter of national pride, as citizens celebrate the career progression of their local heroes.  

Players were not the only ones achieving professional promotion. Rwandan match official Salima Mukansanga became the first female referee to officiate a game at AFCON when she oversaw Zimbabwe vs Guinea in this year’s group stage. The 33-year-old was beaming with pride, as she expressed her desire to show the world women can referee a man’s game at the highest level and succeed. 

Brands looking to champion women in sport should have looked no further than to partner with Salima Mukansanga. Featuring her as the face of an empowering and progressive campaign would capture the hearts of every young girl with a passion for football in Africa and beyond, who now have a new role model to look up to.

Must See TV
The tournament was littered with both highlights and “did you see that?” moments. Of the incredible goals, Malawi’s Gabadinho Mhango scored the pick against Morocco. Goalkeepers also had their moment – Sierra Leone’s Mohamed Kamara burst into tears during his Man of the Match interview after keeping a clean sheet against 2019 champions Algeria. 

Like all good spectacles, there are bound to be some amusing mishaps. A referee blew for full time in the 85th minute during Tunisia vs Mali, the wrong national anthem was played for Mauritania, while the official CAF tournament YouTube stream was taken down due to copyright infringement. As the tournament progressed, however, the focus was firmly on the football action.

Existing sponsors know it does not matter if AFCON is a perfect tournament, because it has the ability to empower nations and capture the imagination.

Sponsorship Success Story
A lack of brand involvement due to apprehension regarding the value of the tournament meant social media platforms had to step in, recognizing the opportunity to reach a new market.

TikTok became an official sponsor of the tournament, acting as a hub for pre and post match content including highlights, challenges, and unique filters for fans to enjoy. The partnership was a massive success. 

The #AFCON2021 TikTok hashtag curated 1.5B views from CAF produced videos and user-generated content. The official CAF TikTok account also saw their following jump from 1.6M followers to 3.1M followers. 

@caf_online 🇸🇳🏆❤️ #AFCON2021 #TotalEnergiesAFCON2021 #Senegal ♬ the swan by saint saens – ⋆ . ₊ ⋆

Brands looking to engage with new social audiences should look to get people closer to what they love – football. They should act as the enablers of enjoyment by creating a space for creative modes of expression to take place, and demonstrate a real commitment to supporting sporting events such as AFCON to improve the lives of fans and local communities.