The Value and Equity of the Olympic Brand

In this second article, in an exclusive series for Fortune by Michael Payne – one of the world’s foremost authorities on  the Olympics and Global marketing, we examine the value and Brand Equity of the OIympic Brand. Understanding the Olympic Brand is said by many to be the cornerstone of any successful Olympic Marketing Programme.

The marketing programme of the Beijing Olympic Games will be the most successful in the history of the Olympics – raising nearly twice as much sponsorship and licensing revenue than any previous Games, and nearly four times as much as Athens four years before.

Some of the world’s foremost international companies, from Coca Cola to General Electric to Volkswagen, have joined China’s leading industrial concerns to pump in more than $2 billion in sponsorship revenues to help fund the operations of  the Games. For many of these companies, it will be the largest  and most important marketing investment that they have ever made.

And yet in terms of traditional advertising and sports sponsorship – the Olympic investment will not provide any form of exposure – for the Olympic Games are unique in the world of sports events, in forbidding any form of advertising in the stadium or on the athletes. So the billions of television viewers watching the Games around the world, will not see any sponsor names around the track.  From just watching the Olympic broadcast, no one will necessarily know who the Olympic sponsors are.

So why are all these blue chip companies associating themselves with the Olympic Games – if there is no discernable exposure benefit – the traditional foundation of any sports sponsorship programme?

Put in it’s most simplest terms, Olympic sponsorship is not about awareness, it is about building affinity with the consumer. As companies strive to build their own brand identity, in what will soon be the world’s largest and most important market, the Olympics offers a unique platform for companies to develop and enhance their own brand identity, by ‘borrowing’ the values of the Olympic brand.

The Olympics possess a set of values that are undeniably valuable to any marketer. The Olympic Games value honour, integrity, determination and commitment to excellence, all qualities that most companies aspire to. The Olympic Games possess attributes such as dignified, worldly, global, modern, multi cultural and dynamic – all of which reflect well on sponsors and project a positive image.

As markets become ever more competitive, and cluttered companies have to fight ever harder to stand out, and connect with the consumer. Sport offers a platform and marketing tool for companies to connect with the consumer, by using something that they care for and respect.

In America and Europe, marketing agencies are starting to talk of entering the age of engagement marketing – defined as: ‘harnessing the emotive power of sports and events to fully engage the consumer and extend the commercial dialogue beyond the traditional event experience. As traditional advertising and marketing channels such as television start to become less efficient, engagement marketing is helping companies to maintain an interactive and on-going dialogue with consumers, helping to create measurable preference and loyalty.

Coca Cola perhaps spends more on sports marketing than any other company in the world, and has been a partner of the Olympic Games since 1928.  In a blunt appraisal of Coca Cola’s marketing strategy, a senior Coke executive explained why. ‘We have to constantly market our beverages in a way that creates the impression that there’s more than just the liquid in the package, something refreshing the spirit. The Olympics do that for us. All that fun and excitement, and global nature accrues to an image that, at a given point in time, makes people pick our product up, versus a lot of other choices that they have out there.’

Rule number one for any Olympic Partner is to understand what the Olympic brand really stands for – what makes it so special in the eyes of the consumer. Only once a company has understood how the consumer sees the Olympics,  can it begin to develop an integrated marketing programme that an effectively exploits their Olympic association.

All too often, Sponsors have rushed into develop their Olympic marketing programmes, without taking the time and trouble to properly understand exactly what is the Olympic magic; what is it, that really makes the Olympics so special, so different from any other sports event.

So what exactly is the Olympic brand. One of the best descriptions that I have seen, is ‘The Olympics is where the world of sport and the yearning for peace meet.’ And the basis of the Olympic marketing programmes is designed to capture this positioning – pulling at people’s nationalistic heart strings or international values while selling a product. No other brand has such power.

To some, the Olympics are much more than a brand. After all they have a 3,000 year history and encompassed a global movement long before globalisation was ever talked about. Yet, as the IOC developed it’s own commercial strategy in the 1990s, and with a growing pressure from an array of stakeholders – host cities, broadcasters, sponsors and numerous other bodies, it was clear that the time had come for the IOC to develop a much stronger vision for the future presentation of the Olympic Brand – and that there was much the IOC could learn from the corporate world in how to manage and cultivate its image.

Over a decade ago, I launched for the IOC the broadest marketing research programme ever undertaken by a sports organisation anywhere in the world. The aim was to better understand the consumer’s true perception of the Olympic brand – and in so doing give the Olympic marketing partners a set of clear insights in how to best capture the essence of what the Olympics stood for. Partners could then accurately  integrate the Olympic positioning in their own marketing campaigns, facilitating that critical dialogue between the company and the consumer.

The initial research identified four key propositions for the Olympic brand:

  • Hope / Optimism. The Olympic Games offer hope for a better world, using sport competition for all and without discrimination as an example and a lesson or humanity.
  • Dreams and inspiration. The Olympic Games provide humanity with the inspiration to achieve personal dreams using the striving, excellence and determination of the athletes as a model
  • Friendship and fair play. The Olympic Games provide tangible examples of how humanity can overcome political, economic, religious and racial prejudices through the values inherent in sport.
  • Joy in effort. The Olympic Games celebrate the universal joy in doing one’s best, regardless of the outcome. Through their honor and dignity in competition, Olympic athletes teach lessons to us all. The Olympic Games provide us the rare opportunity to see humanity at its best

There is a clear  paradox here. In the end it is the non-commercial values that provided the Olympic brand with its true commercial value to the marketing partners.

The development of a clear Olympic brand case study had a dramatic effect on the quality of Partner advertising and communications, giving them a clear initial road map to fully connect with the Olympics.

In the early days of Olympic Sponsorship, sponsors use to put all their emphasis on their official designation – the official product of the Olympic Games. Initially the consumer often thought that the sponsor had been specifically selected after a rigorous analysis by the Olympic authorities. The consumer though soon came to understand that the sponsorship was something that had been purchased, and whilst the sponsor would have to prove that it could meet the necessary service and supply standards, it was often the highest bidder who was awarded the rights, and access to the coveted Olympic symbol.

Sponsors needed to evolve their Olympic advertising and marketing communications to show clearly not only how they were involved with the Games, but how they were supporting the values and ideals of the Olympic Games, as understood by the consumer.

The Olympic Brand case study helped to tell the sponsors which Olympic communication and advertising was on message, and would resonate with the consumer, and which was off message, or not fully realizing the true power of the Olympic brand. To be clear though – it is not that the Olympic brand message should replace a company’s own brand message – but a question of how to best make it a complimentary fit, with the sponsor using key elements of the Olympic brand identity to re-enforce and enhance it’s own identity.

Sponsors sometimes can go too far – losing sight of their own brand identity and forgetting that the real objective is to promote the company, not just the Olympic ideal. Over the years companies have produced some great Olympic brand advertising, that has done wonders for the promotion of the Olympic brand, but little for the company – because they forgot to tie the Olympic brand message back to the company brand message.

So, as more than 50 international and Chinese companies start to fine tune their Olympic advertising campaigns for the Games, what are the key rules for success, relative to exploiting the Olympic brand.

  1. Understand what the Olympic brand stands for, and how the public at large sees the Olympics. What is that makes the Olympic brand different from say the World Cup or other major sporting events.
  2. Make sure that you have a clear understanding of your own brand – what it stands for, and perhaps what you would like it to stand for.
  3. Use the Olympic brand equities to then support and enhance your own brand equities.
  4. Always check that your use of the Olympic brand equity is in line with the consumer’s understanding of the brand. Failure to do so, can lead to wasted advertising and marketing dollars, with campaigns that can back fire.
  5. And always check that in  the Olympic fever, you have not lost sight of your own brand equity and position.

The next 8 months will likely see some of the most innovative and creative marketing and advertising campaigns that China has ever seen. The media buying agency Zenith-Optimedia is already forecasting that the Olympics will generate at least an additional $900 million in extra advertising expenditure in China in 2008.
For those sponsors who find the right way to truly capture the real power of the Olympic brand, integrating the unique Olympic brand values into their own corporate brand positioning, the rewards of their Olympic association will pay off for years to come.

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