Anyone watching the World Cup would see their billboards lining the sides of the football pitches: Adidas, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s; massive global brands.

But at Russia 2018, they were be accompanied by other names that may not be as well known: Hisense, Mengniu and Vivo.

These Chinese brands were taking advantage of one of the biggest stages in sports to raise their profiles and reach millions of people.

Among them was Chinese smartphone maker Vivo, which isn’t as well known outside mainland China or India -- yet ranked as the world’s sixth-largest smartphone vendor in 2017, according to IDC.

Industry watchers say Vivo has done well thanks to affordable devices with premium styling. (Picture: Vivo)

History of innovation

Founded in 2009 by Shen Wei, Vivo has rapidly grown within China to become the country’s third largest smartphone maker (by devices shipped).

The company prides itself on the quality of its cameras -- particularly its selfie cameras -- something industry watchers say helped generate hype in China with people under 30.

Despite the reputation of Chinese smartphone makers as copycats, Vivo has been “quite aggressive” with new technology concepts, according to IDC’s Bryan Ma.

The X1, launched in 2012, was at that time the world's thinnest phone.

And the X21 beat industry leader Samsung to the punch with an in-screen fingerprint sensor.

In June 2018, Vivo announced its latest handset: The Nex, a smartphone with nothing but a screen in front.

So where’s the selfie camera? It automatically pops out of the top of the phone when needed -- a design Vivo showed off in their World Cup ad.

Part of a bigger family

Although Vivo markets itself as a standalone brand, it’s actually a sister company of Oppo -- who, along with OnePlus, are subsidiaries of BBK Electronics Corporation.

Both companies have done well, analysts say, thanks to their affordable devices with premium styling.

“Vivo and Oppo are quite similar in that they are focused on quality mid-range phones,” says Ma.

Unlike competitor Xiaomi, Vivo has focused on offline sales. And it wasn’t long before the company found success outside of China in markets like India and Indonesia.

“That same formula has worked quite well for them in emerging markets,” adds Ma.

But that success is proving difficult to maintain -- especially at home in China, where the country’s notoriously cutthroat smartphone market recently faced its biggest ever sales decline.

IDC’s figures show Vivo was the only major Chinese brand to experience a decline in domestic shipments in 2017 -- falling 0.8 percent year on year.

What's next?

The company is hoping that the deal with FIFA -- part of a rumored US$500 million, six-year package that includes Russia 2018, Qatar 2022 and the Confederations Cup -- will help turn around those sagging fortunes.

“Chinese companies get two things from sponsoring the World Cup. The first is access to Western audiences... The other is a cosmopolitan veneer to their brands, which they hope will resonate with their sizeable domestic markets,” Sam Burne James, news editor of PR Week, told the Guardian.

Sponsoring high-profile sporting events is a strategy that has worked well for Vivo in the past. In 2015, it became the title sponsor of the Indian Premier League under a two-year deal that was extended until 2022.

But perhaps Vivo’s highest-profile appearance in the West wasn’t in sports -- but in a movie. It inked a deal with Marvel Studios to put its phones in Captain America: Civil War.