By Dr. Gerald Griggs

Gerald has worked in education for over twenty years and brings a wealth of higher education experience to UCFB. He is a globally recognised figure in the field of primary physical education and to date has published four books and over thirty international peer reviewed journal articles in the fields of physical education and socio-cultural aspects of sport.

A marvellous mascot or a terrible toy?: Assessing Zabivaka the Wolf at Russia 2018

World Cup fever is upon us. For the next month the eyes of the world will be focused on Russia with the hope that ‘their’ team can lift the biggest prize in football. Events such as World Cups and Olympic Games, often known as mega events, are multi-billion dollar industries and so getting the brand and key message across to the public is vital. One major way this is achieved is through the use of a mascot and Russia 2018 is no different. If you’ve not yet seen it, and it will surely not be long before you will, get ready to meet Zabivaka.

Zabivaka was created by student designer Ekaterina Bocharova, and the mascot in the form of a wolf was selected by a national vote where it won over tiger and cat designs. The difficulty in designing a good mascot lies in creating a character that both resonates with the event and represents the image that the host country (or city) wishes to convey to its global audience. So the billion-dollar question facing Zabivaka is, how effective is this wolf likely to be?

The use of brand mascots is widespread across retail and commerce. They are adopted as a means of enhancing the brand of events. Well-designed mascots can visually communicate a complex set of values, and elicit an emotional response across a wide population. They are also capable of gaining the attention of people who may not have otherwise been interested and become part of the legacy of a mega event. A basic analysis of Zabivaka the wolf in terms of the characteristics considered important in semiotics, which is the science of signs, reveals a number of interesting points.

Zabivaka has a strong identification with the Football World Cup and with the host country. Considered to be a young male, he signifies Russia 2018 by having the logo emblazoned on his chest. Dressed in football kit, he is clearly ready to partake in physical activity. He relates to Russia by having a Russian name which translates as ‘the one who scores’. He evokes the host nation by being an animal indigenous to the country and by wearing kit that represents the colours of the Russian flag.

Choosing to use a human-like animal has often been a successful idea. World Cup Willy was the first ever World Cup mascot used in 1966 and is still considered to be one of the best. The cuddly animal idea is thought to be non-threatening and works well with children who become a chief focus of mascot marketing activities. Unrecognisable mascots that are difficult to relate to, significantly reduce their effectiveness and attractiveness. The best examples of getting this wrong at mega events were Izzy, the much-derided amorphous design for the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games and Ciao the stick figure mascot of the Italia 1990 World Cup.

Possibly the most iconic mega event mascot was Misha the bear, interestingly also a Russian mascot, this time for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Like Misha, Zabivaka has big eyes, a cheeky smile and a youthful haircut, making him somewhat childlike and appealing across many cultures. The use of a face allows a mascot to transfer emotion easily and engage quickly with an audience, an aspect thought to be pivotal for successful brand marketing. This was a point that was lost on the designers of Wenlock and Mandeville, the mascots for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

In many images, Zabivaka is looking down, focused on the ball, which could be viewed as not engaging with the viewer, failing to represent a level of openness and not building relationships with others. Interestingly however, many toys have been made looking straight forward to mitigate against this.

Possibly the biggest risk with the design has been the inclusion of sports goggles. These have caused confusion for many as they were first thought to be ski goggles. These have been latterly explained as being a technological tool helping Zabivaka to shoot more accurately or as preferred eyewear as he moves so fast, not unlike a cyclist. Though it is possible to consider Zabivaka could be a role model for a young, skilful footballer who is not inhibited by wearing glasses, the fact that this is an uncommon image to the viewing public may prove an issue for some. So overall, from a semiotic perspective, Zabivaka the wolf appears to be a largely effective mascot – albeit with reservations about his sports goggles and his averted gaze.

Since many mascots are pitched towards children, it will be interesting to see in the coming weeks whether our children and grandchildren easily recognise Zabivaka. Will they want the toy wolf to play with and will they all suddenly want sports goggles? Analysis might be useful, but ultimately it is the public who will decide how effective the different aspects of the World Cup have been and shape its legacy for years to come.