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Did Anyone Win the Summer 2021 Olympic Marketing Games?

Way back in the early months of 2020, which now seems to be forever ago, the COVID-19 pandemic was causing historic damage to the world’s populations and unprecedented consternation from businesses whose very future and survival depended on closing the gap between brands and consumers. Marketers’ concern for the future was heightened when it was learned that the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics was to be the first major, worldwide sporting event to become the victim of the pandemic.

The Olympic Games is one of a few international, mega advertising and sponsorship opportunities for the world’s marketers. The National Broadcasting Company (NBC), exclusive owners of Olympic broadcasting rights thru 2032, committed more than 7,000 hours of coverage which was to be delivered to audiences via multiple digital platforms as well as traditional television. The cost of ads ranged between $1 million to more than $100 million. NBC Universal had received more than $1 billion in national advertising commitments prior to the postponement of the Games last year. The prospect of a year’s delay of the Games caused many advertisers, even some of the most notable, to retreat to a venue of wait and see.

As 2021 progressed, the virus began to make a resurgence in Japan and Tokyo, prompting organizers to make significant changes to attendance criteria. The country was placed off-limits to travelers from more than 159 Nations around the world, but the Olympics would go forward and feature 33 sports at 339 events across 42 venues that were restricted to 50 percent of capacity. The majority of Japanese citizens favored the cancellation of the Games and the international host, sponsor, and resident brand, Toyota announced it would not participate. The questions became how many brands would follow Toyota’s lead? Who would rise and move forward with campaigns, and how would all the uncertainty alter the campaign messages?

Even after Toyota pulled Olympic ads, many other advertisers like Coca-Cola, Airbnb, GE, Intel, Samsung, Procter & Gamble, and Visa stepped up and renewed the commitment of nearly $3 billion in sponsorships for the Summer Games of 2021. NBC Universal announced that revenue for the delayed 2020 games was on track to reach $1.25 billion with at least 120 advertisers. The Games were indeed going forward!

Marc Beckman, founder, and CEO of advertising agency DMA United said, “A year ago, the idea of a brand activating in an international way like the Olympics, at an event where historically, the stories are the individual athletes would really come to light, I would have been very bearish — now I think it’s the opposite. The spirit of community coming together to overcome obstacles is there in storytelling.”

Many brands, sensitive to the public’s opinion of marketing campaigns that focus on selling products and services in a time of a disruptive and historic pandemic, made an unprecedented adjustment to established content and embraced the art of storytelling; the athlete’s story. Brands like Reebok concluded that the focus for this Olympic Games should be squarely on the athletes. “People have a worry cup and it was full,” said Harry Roman-Torres, Chief Brand Strategy Officer at Droga5. “So, brands were respectful of how people were feeling, and we’ve gotten to a point where people are looking for joy and looking for levity.”

The Summer Olympic Games of 2020, or if you prefer 2021, are over. The winning athletes have posted their best performances and the bronze, silver, and gold medals have been granted and carried away across the participating world. But unlike athletic competitions, the winners of the Olympic advertising game have yet to be determined and many may not be known for weeks, months, or even years.

Like individual athletes, competitive success in marketing requires an advanced commitment of time, effort, and financial resources just to test a brand’s capability at a single event. While some of the recent participating brands hope to point to upticks in short term sales, brand value, or increased revenues to justify the risk of performing, most will ride well into the future to determine if the expense of sponsoring the world’s most notable sporting event was worth the cost and effort.

Beijing Winter Olympics 2022, anyone?