A shopping app which has been touted as the next Amazon or Walmart has been the star of the 2018 World Cup – without even kicking a ball.

Founded by two former Google and Yahoo employees, Peter Szulczewski and Danny Zhang, Wish is the most popular shopping website you’ve probably never heard of despite projected annual sales of $2bn and a valuation of $8bn.

In a bid to raise the company's profile they came up with the idea of  a World Cup-themed advertising campaign called #timeonyourhands and enlisted the support of football superstars Gareth Bale, Robin van Persie, Gigi Buffon, Claudio Bravo Muñoz, Tim Howard, Paul Pogba and Neymar.

Marketing experts named the campaign #timeonyourhands because they originally targeted stars from four of the countries - Italy, Holland, USA and Chile – that failed to qualify for Russia.

As the campaign took off they added Welsh star Gareth Bale – who has 17.1 million followers on Twitter – and used a series of light-hearted videos to show each player sitting at home in isolation as the World Cup plays out in the background. It is then that they each come across the Wish app – and its 200 million products – and discover new hobbies that transform their summer.

As a final punchline to the campaign, Wish added two players who were playing in Russia - Paul Pogba from France and Neymar Junior from Brazil – and watched as it went viral.

Within two hours, 2 million people had viewed Neymar's video on Instagram. The advert will also be shown globally on TV during the World Cup and will be aired by ITV in the UK during all England games.

Englishman Sam Jones, managing director brand marketing and partnerships at Wish, admits they had to "tread carefully” around a topic as sensitive as not qualifying for the World Cup.

"We thought this was a strong concept, but we did not know how the players missing the World Cup would respond to a concept that was centred around their nation not qualifying," Jones told BusinessCloud.

"This was sensitive. For Italy, this was a worldwide shock and the source of national shame (Italy have not missed a World Cup since 1958). We had to tread carefully." 

Despite the potential risks, Jones says he knew that the World Cup was the perfect platform for Wish to reach a global audience and that it was all about standing out.

"We considered approaching the biggest stars from world football to star in a TV commercial (such as Messi, Ronaldo), but this just felt too easy, and would not set Wish apart," he said.

"There is such fierce attention for eye balls during the World Cup; we knew we had to do something very different to avoid being missed. How can you compete with Nike or Adidas unless you do something different?"

Thanks to the football players’ massive social media followings, Jones says the videos have already clocked several hundred million views across different platforms.

"We ensured that all players agreed to post their elements of the adverts on their social media feeds - adding to the authenticity of the campaign," he said.

pogba

It's the latest feather in the cap for Wish, which has built an eCommerce empire on the back of selling clothes, electronics and beauty products at dirt-cheap prices – from £1 watches to £190 TVs – leading to comparisons to next Amazon or Walmart.

Wish generated more than $1 billion in revenue for the first time in 2017 and expects to double that figure this year.

The shopping platform also boasts 75 million monthly active users, has over one million merchants on its website and offers a selection of over 200 million items. It is also sitting on a war chest of over $1 billion in funding.

Jones said Wish is still in the early stages of its brand strategy and that advertising during the World Cup felt like "a smart move".

The origins of the campaign can be traced back to February when Jones and the head of platform advertising Hassan Yahya started exploring marketing ideas for 2018 while attending an event at Half Moon Bay near San Francisco.

Creative director Martin Rossetti was tasked with executing the campaign with the filming taking place over four weeks in Manchester, Madrid, Paris, Amsterdam, LA and Turin. 

"We are a new platform, selling less known goods, straight from the factory in China," said Jones. "This means products are inexpensive. Like any young global brand, we are looking to build legitimacy and trust. 

"We want to become the default consumer global platform for all, specifically for value-conscious shoppers. Football is one of the few games for all, a truly global game - and we felt a great overlap of this strategy."

The start-up is now the No 1 Android shopping app in the US and nearly 40 other countries. The company last year signed a multimillion-dollar deal to get its logo on Los Angeles Lakers' jerseys.