EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Panini’s FIFA World Cup Sticker Album is Back, Digital and Better than Ever

What: We talked to Jason Howarth Panini America's VP of Marketing about the 2018 World Cup sticker book and app.
Why it matters: Panini has a proud tradition in the Latin and Hispanic market and is taking an innovative approach to integrating physical and digital products. Howarth will be speaking at our upcoming Portada Los Angeles on May 10 (Loews Santa Monica Hotel).

For many across the United States and countries across the globe, the onset of FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) fever every four years occurs months before the tournament begins. The event that marks this excitement is the release of Panini's World Cup sticker book. Since the book's inception in 1970, completing the book with each player's sticker has become an obsession, with friends spending hours working on deals to help fill out their collection. The release of the 2018 edition is just one reason why there is buzz around Panini, as their trading card business, both physical and digital, has seen dramatic growth as of late. We had the opportunity to speak with Jason Howarth, VP, Marketing at Panini America (@sportsmktgguy) about the company's most recent developments and where it is looking to go in the future.

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The Excitement Surrounding the Sticker Collection is Multi-Generational

Portada: What does your market in the United States typically look like demographically? Are there specific strategies in this 2018 World Cup Sticker cycle to engage with the Hispanic community?

NBA legend Kobe Bryant showing off his Leo Messi Panini World Cup sticker (courtesy: Panini America)

Jason Howarth: "The FIFA World Cup sticker collection and the World Cup come every four years, so there’s this anticipation for it. That exists in the US marketplace and all over the world. The demographics might be different based on each country. One of the other things that we have in the US marketplace, where we’re very fortunate, is we have a diverse population that follows multiple teams in multiple countries as opposed to maybe another country that might not qualify for the World Cup, and their interest might be somewhat diminished…

There’s been an evolution. 2014 was really eye-opening. You have the Colombian president getting out of his motorcade in the middle of an election to be part of a Panini (@PaniniAmerica) swap day. That’s how ingrained in the culture it is. That’s an awesome product to have, and we’re fortunate to have had that product since 1970. The audience is really diverse. You’ve got kids that collect it; in the US marketplace, it’s a multi-generational collection. There are grandparents who collect this album every time it comes out, and they do it with their grandkids. They do it because they did it when they were kids. There’s that excitement and that energy around it."

Portada: Given the rise of social media and influencer-marketing, have you developed any new strategies during the last two World Cup cycles to market to the younger demographic?

J.H.: "Even in just the last four years, our conversation and how we plan on executing is very different and very dynamic. There are some tried and true things: there is nothing that is ever going to trump getting the product into the hands of consumers, so sampling is tried and true.

There are some really strong influencers that love soccer, that love the Panini sticker album, so there's a natural fit there. It doesn't feel like it's forced; it feels authentic.

The role that digital plays, though, in terms of how you drive excitement, energy, and integration, was a thing that wasn’t even as prevalent to us four years ago. It’s extremely important to us... Whether that’s campaigns via Facebook, Instagram, or other executions so to speak, integrations with partners, those are all driving great content. We’re so fortunate that we’ve got an 80-page album with 681 stickers that are all great pieces of content representing 32 countries and legends from past World Cups. There’s such a huge platform for us when you look at it from a social perspective. We just did our first online unboxing video for FIFA World Cup stickers and put that on YouTube, put it on our blog, and that was the first reveal of the product in the US marketplace. We didn’t do that in 2014. Those opportunities and incorporating social to help promote and highlight our content and our product is really compelling to us.

Certainly, if you look at the impact of influencers and the popularity that those guys have, there are some really strong influencers that love soccer, that love the Panini sticker album, so there’s a natural fit there. It doesn’t feel like it’s forced; it feels authentic. I feel like that’s definitely something that you’ll see here as we move into the World Cup."

The Relationship with Players Allows for Organic Engagement

Portada: We noticed that you had a VIP lounge at the NBA All-Star game. Is trying to get your product in marquee events becoming more part of your overall marketing strategy? Are you realizing that in today’s day and age, athletes from different sports are able to market athletic events at a higher level?

J.H.: "The level of relationship that we have with players is probably very different than a lot of other partners. For us, on the trading card side of our business  —in the US marketplace, that’s what drives Panini America— we have deals with a lot of these players to sign trading cards for us… There’s nothing more authentic than a guy holding his own card or his teammate’s card.

Former US Men's National Team star Cobi Jones proudly holding up his old Panini sticker (courtesy: Panini America)

Even when we activate at the NBA All-Star Game, for example, there’s a mix between partners there and players getting the opportunity to decompress and understand who we are as a brand beyond just sitting there signing cards for us all the time. I remember we did an event in 2014 with Cobi Jones (@cobijones), and we pulled out some of his previous World Cup stickers. He got the biggest kick out of it and was making fun of himself from the previous World Cups thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe that that was me!” It’s so authentic to these players that there’s a natural feeling to it

Soccer is a global sport, but it’s not the only sport that exists in the US marketplace: there’s football players, basketball players, baseball players, NASCAR drivers. A good portion of them have an affinity for the game of soccer and are excited by the tournament. If there’s an opportunity to utilize those guys to create an organic, authentic feel to be engaged with our product, we’re going to do it."

Hispanics and Young People: Essential Audiences of Panini

Portada: Do you try to tailor content specifically to the Latin and Hispanic market in any way? Are you trying to find particular athletes who will resonate with that demographic? Do you try to do promotions in Spanish? Or, is it just part of a greater overall strategy?

J.H.: "It’s part of a greater overall strategy, though we do place emphasis on the Hispanic market when it comes to World Cup. The partners that we’ll be leveraging in this World Cup are definitely Hispanic-centric. It’s an important market for us. We’ve got a multi-lingual product: our FIFA World Cup sticker collection is featured in six languages. Thankfully for us, the product is also very visual in terms of the players, so that makes our lives easier in terms of pushing the product and promoting the product… It’s a multi-generational collection for those who grew up with it. For the Anglo-American who has just started to follow soccer since the 1994 World Cup, that’s a process that’s growing."

 There are grandparents who collect this album every time it comes out, and they do it with their grandkids. They do it because they did it when they were kids.

Portada: Another huge part of your business is the digital trading card game. For someone who may be completely foreign to it, why is it appealing to the younger demographic? How does it differ from trading cards, and why is it doing so well?

J.H.: "Some of it is that it replicates the physical experience to a certain extent. We’ve always said at Panini that we want to cater to however the collector wants to collect, whether that’s collecting digital trading cards on their phone; whether that’s collecting the physical product itself... We want to create that experience no matter how they collect, and that’s how digital trading cards came into play for us.

Win digital trading cards against competitors across the globe in Panini's FIFA World Cup app's PackBattle (courtesy: Panini America)

It delivers another element of stickiness within the app. When you’re a kid and playing with your trading cards, you’re viewing them as a piece of entertainment, not just a commodity that you could sell on the secondary market. In the scenario where we’ve got our NFL Blitz app and our NBA Dunk app, and we actually just launched our FIFA World Cup trading app… You can trade around the globe with fans all over the place that have the same interest in the sport that you do.

We have a thing in our NFL Blitz app, in our Dunk app, and in our FIFA app called PackBattle. There’s a little bit of a strategy involved there in terms of using statistics or power performance numbers of the player. The winner gets to keep the card…. It’s a best out of five, and it’s awesome. It’s an easy, quick, fun game. I can’t even tell you how long I’ve played the Pack Battle over this past weekend on FIFA: it’s ridiculous. It’s always, 'One more. Just one more.'

I think the other thing that’s really cool, as we’re on the subject of the FIFA World Cup app… on the back of that sticker back there’s a code, and you download the app, and you can go to paninipromocode.com, and you can enter in that code, and you get a special, free digital pack to start collecting the digital piece of it."

Portada: Is there a unique opportunity for you as a business to track consumer data in the digital game through the app? Is that one of your focuses?

J.H.: "Our focus more than anything is just making sure that we’re always where the collector is and where they want to collect. Obviously, there are interactions that we can have with the consumer from a one-to-one perspective that we don’t always get in the physical space… whether it’s rewarding them with special packs or coins in the app, it’s really compelling."

Portada: Has the Latin American market responded to the digital trading card game that differs from other demographics? Are they just as crazy about it as the hard copy game?

J.H.: "I think it’s still too early to tell on the FIFA World Cup app, because we launched it less than a week ago. Collectors are collectors are collectors… It’s truly a global app for us because of the affinity for the product and how our physical collection is distributed in over 100 countries. There’s going to be quite an audience there as compared to some that are more targeted to certain regions and certain markets."

Portada: Beyond the obvious answer, sales, what are your key performance indicators for the World Cup and for your company overall? Are there new goals such as growth in certain markets or social media views that are new KPI’s for the upcoming World Cup?

J.H.: "Driving the number of packets that are in the market from a global perspective is huge. In the US market, we’ve continued to see this growth and progression for the FIFA World Cup sticker collection every four years and the excitement for the growth of soccer… There are lots of kids walking around in Messi jerseys, Ronaldo jerseys, and Neymar jerseys in the US that probably wouldn’t support any of those teams if it weren’t for those players. So, as that continues to evolve and grow, that’s a KPI for the US marketplace: seeing how far that growth comes in the US marketplace compared to 2014.

US Men's National Team star has a unique sponsorship with Panini (courtesy: Panini America)

We also have some things that are a disadvantage. Does the US team [not qualifying for the World Cup] have an impact on us this year? To be honest, none of us really know that. We don’t anticipate that it will. We wish that they were there because that would help amplify and generate another level of excitement in the US marketplace. Christian Pulisic (@cpulisic_10) is one of our exclusive athletes. He’s the first soccer player we’ve signed as an exclusive athlete. He’s a great kid and an amazing, energetic player. If he was on the World Cup stage this year, what would that do for him and US Soccer? We’ll have to wait and see on that."

Keeping an Eye on the Future

Portada: Where do you think the trading card business will be in 5-10 years? Are there technological changes such as Voice, AR, VR, or thing that you may know of that will be the biggest driver of change coming up? Or, are there other factors that will change the business moving forward?

Neymar's Panini digital trading card (courtesy: Panini America)

J.H.: "I think physical is huge. It’s not going to go away five years from now, ten years from now. We continue to see phenomenal growth on the physical side of the business, especially with our core products. We’re in the second year with the NFL and the NFLPA as an exclusive trading card partner. We’ve had great growth this past year… The NBA marketplace in the trading card space from a physical perspective has grown exponentially since we became an exclusive partner there. Our first year was 2009, and that’s grown from a global perspective. All of those things are really exciting to us.

I mentioned before, how do we make it so we continue to create a tradition of collecting and being where consumers want to collect, whether that’s physical or digital. I can’t go into too much detail about where I can see technological changes going, but I can tell you that there will be. I don’t think that it replaces one way of collecting over another. If anything else, maybe it creates a new level or a new generation of collectors and consumers because it’s a different way to collect. We’re on a great little ride here right now in terms of the excitement in the marketplace for trading cards, both physical and digital… Any opportunity we have to incorporate new tech and new experience, we’re going to try to make it work."

Portada: Are there any other points you would like to cover?

J.H.: "As you mentioned, the heritage and tradition with the physical collection is huge. The new exciting component that we’re bringing to it this year is marriage between the physical and digital, where you’re getting the sticker in your hand and then you’re actually getting a free digital pack when you download the Panini FIFA World Cup app. That’s probably the single biggest difference from where we’ve come from 1970 to 2018, and we’re really excited to see how that plays out."

Panini's unique approach to promoting physical and digital products harmoniously is a strategy that should be taken note of across industries. Howarth is right that there are some products that will always carry value in the physical space, but in today's more technologically-centric world, there are creative ways to still tailor these products towards younger demographics that spend a tremendous amount of time on mobile devices. This foresight on behalf of Panini should allow the company to have success with its 2018 FIFA World Cup initiatives, but this mindset will also allow the tradition of young and old to collect together to continue for future generations in the Latin market and beyond.

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David Goldstein @dmgold24

David is from Miami, Florida, where he grew up immersed in a vibrant Hispanic and Latin culture. His professional experiences include coaching Division I soccer and interning for Atlético Nacional S.A. in Medellin, Colombia. He graduated from Princeton University with a degree in Philosophy and is currently enrolled in the Columbia University Sports Management Master's Program.

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