Olympic Marketing The Keys To Success

In this third 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 key issues that can make the difference between success and failure in the high stakes game of Olympic sponsorship.

When  the IOC President Dr. Jacques Rogge steps forward to the centre stage of the Beijing Birds Nest Stadium on 31st August to close the Games of the XXIX Olympiad and call upon the youth of the world to gather four years from now, in London to celebrate the 2012 Olympic Games, it will mark  the end of  an era for many  people sitting in the stadium that night.

Athletes will look back at the high point of their careers; whether they gave their best, and met their own and their nations expectations. Some athletes will be thinking about retiring from active competition, others as to whether they have the energy and will power to keep going for another four years and to compete in London.

Government leaders and local politicians will be reflecting on whether they delivered on their promise – to use the Games as a catalyst to transform the City of Beijing, to present a new China to the world.

The world’s media will be rushing to judgment, - either congratulating or criticizing the Organizing Committee for their successes or shortcomings, although only history a decade later will be able to truly reflect on the real impact of the Games to China.

Sitting in the stadium that night will also be one group of marketing executives, breathing a large sigh of relief. The largest corporate hospitality operation the world has ever seen will be drawing to a close; corporations who have placed their technologies and equipment on the worlds stage, for all to see, with no second chance will be winding down their operations; and the largest advertising and marketing campaign that China has ever seen – larger than all of the advertising campaigns combined in the nation’s history will be drawing to a close.

The executives responsible for the execution of the Olympic sponsor programmes will be looking back and wondering to themselves, did they get it right? Did they fully use the once in a life time opportunity of the Olympic Games and realize the unique power of the  marketing platforms. Will they have succeeded in writing a new Chapter in marketing history, and provided their company a legacy that will provide rewards for a decade to come. Will the Board in the months following the Games, look at the results of their Olympic sponsorship investment  and decide that to sponsor the Beijing Games was the best marketing decision in the company’s history, and the Olympic project directors targeted as future leaders of the company in recognition of their strategic vision and management skills.

Or will in the months to come the Board look back, and wonder what did they get out of it all – even if the Games were a great success, what did it really mean to their brand, to their competitive position, to their own corporate bottom line. Did they fully realize the opportunity, or did they let the unique benefits and opportunities slip through their hands? Were the Olympic project leaders up to the challenge, and illustrated true leadership, or did they slip at the critical moment, and see their careers stall.

Although some sponsors have been working on their Games operations for several months, if not years, there is still time to check whether strategies are on target, and to make the necessary adjustments to ensure success. Detailed below, is my list of 10 key actions to ensure success in Olympic sponsorship. A simple checklist, that at times may seem all too obvious, but all too often are forgotten by Olympic marketing directors, with the resulting failure in their Olympic marketing programmes.

1. Understanding the Olympic Opportunity.

The Olympic opportunity is unique amongst all sponsorship offerings.

  • It is often even a mistake to view ‘Olympic marketing’ as a sponsorship opportunity. It has the potential to represent much more, and if correctly structured, to deliver a   broad comprehensive, multi year marketing programme, of exceptional value. Failure though, to understand the potential dynamics of successful Olympic marketing, can also make it a very, very expensive acquisition with limited return on investment. The last two decades are littered with many phenomenal success stories, that illustrate the true power of Olympic marketing. There are though also more than a fair share of casualties, with companies left wondering whether the investment  really had been worth all the trouble, and delivered on the original promise.

    The Olympics often represents the biggest and most important marketing opportunity to be ever offered within the host country – with substantial £ multi billion  infrastructure and other related investments.

  • Olympic marketing programmes operate within a highly complex, and what to the outsider, can often be seen as a very confusing, management structure – with multiple different organisations and stakeholders. Understanding who controls what; what can and can not be offered; the inter relationship between different parties etc is critical.

  • Understanding past best practices, and shortcomings of former Olympic sponsorship and marketing programmes is one of the best routes to ensure success and reduce risk.

2. Understanding the Olympic rights on offer.

The Olympic opportunity is also unique amongst sponsorship programmes, in that the key element of most other sponsorships – ‘venue / athlete – branding – exposure’, is not, and never will be part of the Olympic offering – as the Games, and competitive field of play, are delivered clean of all advertising.
Key to successful programme development starts with:

  • Understanding the dynamics of the Olympic brand, and how to integrate its values into the partner’s strategic marketing and business agenda.

  • Recognising the flexibility of the Olympic marketing offering – and how to adapt it to the partner’s strategic business agenda.

  • Acknowledging that the Olympic partnership is not a one year event in 2008, but a 6 – 10 year marketing programme, and creating a strategy with the ‘staying power’ to justify amortisation over multi years, without undermining the ‘rarity’ element that is such a key part of the Olympic DNA.

  • Having a clear business plan for the Olympic agenda – that meets corporate goals, and not trying to retrofit the Olympic purchase after the acquisition.

  • Knowing what each of the rights mean; what it will take to activate them; which additional rights and benefits are required in order to create a programme that stands out from a potentially cluttered market place. If digital content is fundamental to the future marketing strategy – how can these rights be sourced.

  • Ensuring that in acquiring the Olympic rights, company will be able to ‘own’ the category in the market place – with clear ambush protection, and the necessary pre-emptive moves on any other programme – opportunity that could be taken up by a competitor to undermine the overall sponsorship.

  • Recognising what it will take to successfully activate the Olympic partnership through allocation of sufficient resources: both human and financial.

3. Planning for Games Time Operations.

Nothing prepares you for the Games time experience. The last few months counting down to the Games will disappear before anyone realizes what has happened. Only those companies and executives who have prepared for  their Games time operations with a military discipline, locking down the smallest of details, and preparing contingency plans for every eventuality will succeed.

Sponsors forget they are not the only show in town – there are at least 50 other partners all looking to claim their moment in the spot light, to give their guests the best possible experience. They underestimate what the collective impact of all the different components coming together will mean – from the corporate partners to the 205 nations, to the 20,000 media corps to the 30 – 40 heads of state. Security and logistics issues take operations planning into unchartered territory. The Organising Committee, even with the best of intentions to help their partners will not longer be able to cope with the pressures and strains of the games time operational needs.

Sponsors who leave planning issues to the last few weeks before the Games, are risking their whole programme.

4. Hospitality – Invitation of a Lifetime.

Beijing will see the greatest gathering of world’s business leaders ever. To attend the Olympic Games is truly an invitation of a life time – something never to be forgotten. 2008 will take the hospitality experience to a whole new level, as the world’s leaders flock to China, to bear personal witness to a unique moment in global history – China’s arrival on world stage.

More than 100,000 corporate guests are expected to attend the Games at the invitation of the Olympic sponsors and world’s broadcasters. It will represent the largest hospitality ever seen on this planet.

The logistical challenge of giving each guest a VIP experience, never to be forgotten will test event the most experienced hospitality managers, as they struggle with everything from not losing their guests in the security quagmire of the Opening ceremony to explaining why they have flown half way round the world, and can not go to watch the table tennis, because there are no tickets left, but Greco roman wrestling will still be fun.

5. Showcasing – Engaging the Public.

Many of the Olympic Partners will be building multi million dollar pavilions at Olympic Green to showcase their company to the world’s media and the spectators visiting the Games. As tempting as it will be to turn these showcases into exclusive platforms for their own corporate brands, only those companies who connect their showcasing back to the Olympic ideals, helping spectators to share and live the once in a life time Olympic experience will truly benefit.
 All too often companies  forget that the fans are there first and foremost to see the Olympics – it is not a corporate trade show. Companies who ignore this risk alienating media and consumer.

6. Advertising – Breaking through the Clutter.

The City of Beijing, CCTV, Chinese print and on line media will see the largest media advertising bonanza the country has ever seen. All of the 50 plus Olympic sponsors and suppliers, and a  few other companies will be battling it out to be heard and seen through a barrage of Olympic messages.

Standing out will require a lot more than just sticking the official Olympic emblem at the bottom of the advertisement and broadcasting your official designation. Telling the story of how you supported the Games and athletes; how your technology and services were used to make it all happen, and sharing the Olympic experience, giving them a unique memory will be what helps to make the advertising stand out from the clutter.

Challenge your advertising team – does the ad really stand out from the rest; does it have a real Olympic connection and tell your corporate brand story – or is it just bland Olympic brand feel good, that promotes the Olympic ideal, but is of little lasting benefit to your own brand.

7. Public Relations – Engaging the Media.

It is expected that more than 20,000 journalists will descend on China to report on the Games. While perhaps half will be there to report on the sporting action, the rest will be there to document China’s entry onto the world stage – the culture, the history, the people, the companies who will be the future super brands.

The worlds media will be hungry for stories – never before has there been such a fascination with a host country. Sponsors who support the media with the tools to help tell the story, will reap benefits of global media coverage.

Invest in the PR effort – give real Olympic insights, not standard Public relations corporate fluff!

8. Documenting the story.

Games time operations is like being in the eye of a hurricane – everything rushing around you, but not fully aware of the real impact of events and actions. Only afterwards do you begin to realise the full impact of events. All too often sponsors forget to properly document their operations, to research and analyse the impact of their Olympic programmes – and when it comes to reporting back to Boards and Shareholders, not having a properly documented case study to present their case.

Hire the professional film team, photographers, researchers and writers to make sure everything is properly documented !

9. The Internal dynamic.

Share the Olympic experience with your employees. Make them proud that their company is a partner. When I would debrief the CEO’s of TOP partners after each Olympic Games, I would ask what surprised them most about their Olympic marketing experience. To a CEO, every one commented on the internal dynamic – how they completely underestimated the impact on internal morale, and how the Olympic sponsorship became a great catalyst for transforming the company internally.

Whether it is giving every employee a sponsor Olympic pin, time off to watch the Games, or bringing an Olympic torch to the factory for every employee to have their photo take  with it – invest in giving each and every employee their own Olympic experience.

10. Post Games Activation.

The Olympic marketing programme should not end after the Closing ceremony. Even is some of the excitement and hype will have died down, there is still a great opportunity to tell the story of the sponsors involvement with the Games.

Volkswagen recently made the inspired decision to sponsor the official film of the Olympic Games, giving them the opportunity to take the film on a national road show, one year after the Games with a series of local events in each of their dealerships around the country.

Success in Olympic sponsorship is dependent on many factors. Those companies who invest the time and resources to properly understand and plan for the largest marketing opportunity China will ever see – will reap the dividends for years to come. Others who fail to plan, will be left wondering was it worth all the time, energy and investment.


  1. Leadership from the top.
  2. Identification of clear strategic objectives.
  3. Integration into existing marketing strategies, not replacement of.
  4. Early buy in amongst all key stakeholders.
  5. Internal Olympic management structure – executives and support agencies.
  6. Becoming the ‘best’ friend of the Organising Committee.
  7. Understanding the nature, potential and power of the Olympic brand.
  8. Appropriate resources – human and financial – to activate the project.
  9. Not to underestimate the potential of internal returns.
  10. Pace yourself


  1. Failure to develop clear strategic plan upfront.
  2. Believing that Olympic sponsorship will solve all your problems.
  3. Starting to activate too late.
  4. Not fully activating internally – vertically and horizontally.
  5. Lack of understanding of resources required to fully activate.
  6. Not integrating into existing business strategy.
  7. Too narrow focus just on brand awareness and hospitality.
  8. Not measuring progress and performance.
  9. Becoming an enemy of the Organising Committee.
  10. Losing the rights to begin with through weak development of bid offer
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