I was a gymnast in my youth and while I didn’t have a realistic shot at the Olympics, I was competitive in my day, so each Olympic quadrennial I look forward to the world turning its attention to lesser-known sports. Granted, gymnastics doesn’t suffer in the near-complete obscurity that sports like fencing, Greco-Roman wrestling, and synchronized swimming do (for example). However, when it comes to media attention, and perhaps more importantly, sponsorships, the Olympics is the Big Kahuna of opportunities for athletes in nearly any Olympic sport to have their “one moment in time.” I like the idea that I’ll get to see someone other than a football, basketball or baseball player on my Wheaties box.
The 1984 games were a watershed moment for brand marketers, as it was the first time the Olympics allowed for “official sponsorship” rights—shout out if you remember the (misguided?) campaign to create awareness for the parent brand Beatrice (you’ve known us all along!), owner of food brands such as Butterball, Hunts, LaChoy and Meadow Gold. And while marketers do not seem to take full advantage of the opportunity of so-called “captive audiences” by creating truly breakthrough, buzz-worthy advertising the way we’ve come to expect from the Super Bowl (albeit a one-day event as compared to a two-week abundance of athletic-event riches), there is at least a concerted effort by many to create relevance by including references to the games and even the athletes themselves. In reflecting on how far this year’s ads have come since 1984—where many ads resorted to merely tacking “Official Sponsor of the Olympics” (or something similar) to their existing ads in an awkward fashion—I am struck by how much more today’s ads integrate sports and athletes into their stories. Of course in fairness, this is much easier to do today, as rules around maintaining amateur status have been relaxed. However, I have been impressed enough with many of the ads that I haven’t been as tempted as I usually am to fast-forward through them. I’ve actually “shushed” the room to watch Samsung’s Torch Relay and P&G’s tributes to moms (“to moms, they’ll always be kids)” more than once. I particularly like P&G’s integration of the Shazam app that links to see more athlete stories, because it is one of the few ads that includes an active call to action relevant to the viewer (to be completely transparent, P&G is a client of Resource, but we did not work on the Olympic campaign).
What’s also been interesting is the evolution of the importance of Olympic sponsorship. Brands have realized that consumers seem to care about it, but this causes a challenge—only one Olympic sponsor per category is allowed (e.g., if it’s Coke, that means Pepsi is out). This has led to guerrilla warfare tactics where brands such as Nike, not an official sponsor because Adidas has laid claim to that honor, create ads that attempt to tie themselves to the Olympics to create relevance and consumer engagement, without crossing the line that would indicate official sponsorship. However, it is increasingly confusing to the consumer, as demonstrated by a survey recently reported by AdAge showing that consumers frequently incorrectly named non-sponsors as sponsors. The aforementioned Nike seems to be doing it deliberately, as outlined in Brandchannel’s article, “Nike Flips the Bird to Olympics Brand Police,” while others appear to merely create a bit of relevance, such as the inclusion of previous Olympian Shawn Johnson (gymnastics) in commercials for the new TV series “Go On.” In the end, there is something to be said for the attention paid to sports—particularly the obscure ones—regardless of official sponsorship status. Yet if official sponsorship status becomes too diluted, will it sink the sponsorship ship? The London Olympic Committee has certainly gone to extremes in order to enforce the rights of official sponsors, but where do we draw the line?