RIO DE JANEIRO/BERLIN Adidas might be attracting bad online buzz for its sponsorship of biting Uruguayan footballer Luis Suarez - but in the tussle to win the most World Cup social media play, the German firm says it is winning plenty of positive attention too.
With every tackle, save and goal, a simultaneous off-the-pitch marketing battle is being fought between official FIFA World Cup sponsor Adidas and arch-rival Nike Inc to dominate social media to promote their brands.
The stakes are high: Despite being a World Cup sponsor since 1970, Adidas is seeing its leadership in soccer challenged by Nike, especially after the world's biggest sportswear company dominated marketing at the 2010 competition through its savvy use of social media.
But with Brazil’s World Cup on track to be the most tweeted event ever - the social media network expects far more than the 150 million tweets sent during the London Olympics in 2012 - Adidas has the perfect arena to fight back.
A Reuters survey of the Twitter handles @adidasfootball and @nikefootball, using analytics website Tweetchup.com, shows Nike is slightly ahead so far in some key metrics including most retweets and the most favorite tweets during the event.
"Nike is perceived by a lot of folks as if they were a sponsor even though they are not spending as much as Adidas has with FIFA," said Opher Kahane, chief executive of marketing intelligence firm Origami Logic, which advises big brands on social media strategy including World Cup sponsor Visa.
Determined to be the most talked-about brand, Adidas has set up a "newsroom" in the clubhouse of soccer club Flamengo in Rio de Janeiro, where around 50 Adidas staff generate real-time online content, including for the Twitter account of the World Cup's official match ball - made by Adidas - the Brazuca.
Tom Ramsden, Adidas marketing director for football, said up to 80 percent of people watching the World Cup will engage in social media at some point while watching a game.
"It is the key platform for us to engage with our target audience, that young teenage footballer," he told a news conference back at the firm's German headquarters on Tuesday.
Adidas publicity has not always been the type it can control however, such as when Uruguay and Liverpool striker Suarez - its key brand figure - bit Italian Giorgio Chiellini on Tuesday.
In the ensuing furor, Adidas campaign shots of Suarez baring his teeth went viral. But so, as online commentators were quick to point out, did the brand logo.
"Do you think Adidas are regretting this World Cup promotional ad... or reveling in it?" wrote Twitter user @aspiringnomads.
After FIFA suspended Suarez on Thursday, Adidas said it would not use him in any further World Cup marketing - but stopped short of ending its sponsorship deal with him.
The German company is aiming for soccer sales of $2.7 billion this year, and needs a World Cup boost because its revenue so far has been dented by volatile currencies in emerging markets and by tensions in Russia.
By comparison Nike, which only got going in the sport in the 1994, reported soccer revenue of $2.3 billion for the year to end May on Thursday, helping its shares jump 3.2 percent.
Nike Chief Executive Mark Parker told analysts that day: "The combination of the world’s best players and teams, our most innovative performance products and new levels of consumer engagement through social media is truly extraordinary."
There is hope for Adidas though. Data from German software firm SAP shows it is the most-talked about of the official World Cup sponsors so far, with over 67,000 mentions on social media, compared with over 40,000 for Sony and over 36,000 for Coca-Cola.
The same survey showed that Nike-sponsored Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo were the most talked about players in the first two weeks of the tournament - but then fell in the ranking when England and Portugal were both eliminated.
Marketing expert Kahane says while Adidas has upped its game to be more active on Facebook and Twitter, Nike is getting more "Likes" or "Favorites" - possibly because it is paying more to promote posts.
The U.S. firm said its marketing expenses rose 36 percent last quarter, mainly due to World Cup spending, and are expected to increase by 30 percent in the current quarter.
Further evidence that its spending is bearing fruit: two of its adverts have together attracted 380 million online views - making them three times more popular than Adidas ads, according to marketing technology firm Unruly.
So far Nike has also provided more than half of the boots worn on the pitch in the tournament - and after it said it would give Brazilian player Neymar a pair of golden ones to wear in the second round, the player's Facebook post was shared or liked 1.2 million times.
But players wearing Adidas boots have so far scored more goals. Alongside Neymar, the top scorers so far - with four apiece - are Adidas-sponsored Lionel Messi of Argentina and Thomas Mueller of Germany.
And the Adidas Twitter account for its "Brazuca" match ball, has attracted over two million followers and continues to generate publicity: A Brazuca Tweet featuring singer Pharrell Williams and another about a contested French goal against Honduras together collected more than 20 million retweets and favorites.
"Brazuca truly is the jewel in the crown of what we have right now," Adidas marketing director Ramsden said.
($1 = 0.7359 Euros)
(Correction made to fix garble in paragraph five)
(Additional reporting by Keith Weir in Brazil and Devika Krishna Kumar in Banglalore; Editing by Sophie Walker)