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The Branding of the Olympic Games

With the current feverous bidding process that surrounds the selection of each new host of the next Olympic Games, it is difficult to remember that there was a time, not long ago, that few if any of the world’s cities desired to be selected as host of the 3000 year old, international sports spectacle. The 1976 Montreal Games overran their budget so drastically that the debts weren’t paid off until 2006, some 40 years after the Games closing ceremony. The cost and debt to a city sponsor had become such a drain on public coffers and was so expensive that nobody wanted to be the sponsor of the 1984 Olympic Games. With the exception of the initial Games in 1896, no Olympics had been underwritten entirely by private money. And other than the 1932 Games in Los Angeles and 1948 Games in London, no Olympics had ever reported a profit. Peter Ueberroth, who had been appointed to head the 1984 Los Angeles (L.A.) Olympic committee, explained that the 1984 Games would be the first “free-enterprise, private-sector Olympics, with no taxpayer money.”

The reason the L.A. Games would become a model for future Olympics was Ueberroth’s shrewd grasp of how marketing was evolving. The businesses that were bought in as sponsors for the 1984 Games realized that what they were buying was intangible, and that the new normal would be as much about brand recognition as units sold. Now, with the Sochi Winter Olympics now in full swing, it is appropriate to reflect on how far the marketing and branding of the Olympic Games has evolved since those watershed decisions in 1984.

The 2012 Summer Olympics in London brought in more than 219.4 million television (TV) viewers, making it the most watched event in TV history, surpassing the 2008 Beijing games (215 million viewers). According to olympic.org, London 2012 had a global reach of 3.6 billion people, the highest in Olympic Games history, drawing in viewers from 220 countries and territories around the world. In today’s digital and social media world the Sochi games is promising to be the bigger than ever. Today the Olympic brand and reach is one of the most recognizable and powerful brands anywhere in the world.

Some of the world’s foremost international companies are clamoring to become “Official Sponsors”, shelling out more than 2 billion dollars in sponsorship revenues to help fund the world’s biggest sporting event, even though their Olympic investment will not provide any form of exposure, because the Olympic Games forbid 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, because 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.

According to a study by Ace Metrix, a TV and video advertising analytics firm, the gold medal for corporate branding during the 2014 Olympics in Sochi goes to Procter & Gamble, which has run a wide range of adorable, heartstring-tugging ads aimed at moms. Procter & Gamble leads the Games in terms of overall ad effectiveness for both its corporate branding efforts, which earned Gold, and several of its brands, including Febreze, which earned Silver. United Airlines took the Bronze medal for a series of Olympian-packed Team USA ads. Other international corporate brands demonstrating favorable performances at this year’s winter Games include; Molson, the Canadian brewer who is grabbing notable attention with its Molson Canadian fridge and Dos Equis with its newest version the “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign.

Michael R. Payne, author of “The Value and Equity of the Olympic Brand”, said. “The Olympics is where the world of sport and the yearning for peace meet.’ And the basis of the Olympic marketing programs 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. 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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