So the greatest show on earth is back for another instalment and currently gluing us to our TV screens. No, not Game of Thrones, that’s still a whole year away and even then, it’s only seven episodes long. Unbelievable. No, live from Rio, it’s the Olympic and Paralympic games, one of the most jaw-dropping and inspiring achievements of humanity.
Of course, no major sporting event is complete without a whole host of sponsors’ ads, activations and experiences, all clamouring for our attention. Getting people’s attention is very, very hard. And if you are a brand that wants to grow in a meaningful way, getting people’s attention is the only thing that really matters because it translates into mental availability at the point of purchase – the single most important-yet-overlooked metric in marketing.
People willingly give their attention to sport and the Rio games is no exception, which gives a sponsor a bit of a head start. And for this edition of the games, we’ve had the Russian team doping scandal, the IOC’s lacklustre response compared to the IPC’s hardline stance, daily commentary on the readiness of Rio and the environmental and social cost of the games, and even a diving pool gone green.
You could argue that this damages sponsor’s brands. Equally you could argue that all that scandal adds to the attention that the games attracts, and that benefits sponsors trying to cut through the clutter, especially with the new football season upon us.
But nevertheless, the challenge to genuinely register in someone’s mind for a brand sponsor is still huge.
In a quest to fight for attention, lots of brands quite rightly turn to emotion. Some rise to the top of consumers' minds with finely wrought stories of hope, endeavour and victory that have us reaching for the tissues. Nike often goes down this route, but this year it has softened its inspirational message with a quirky delivery by actor Bobby Cannavale fresh from his brilliant role in Vinyl as person-to-have-snorted-the-most-coke-in-the-70s. P&G has reprised its brilliant “thanking mums” strategy, which it is impossible not to like. And Minute Maid have had a go as well.
The Games are such stirring stuff that a brand only needs to find a vaguely credible reason to tell the story, and then get just close enough to the edge of cheesy pathos, but not teeter over it. The trouble is, at sporting events like this everyone’s at it. And so that attention can get a bit misattributed…
“Hmm, now just which brand was it, that with their product/service/sponsorship dollars helped that young woman who’d overcome adversity to finally stand on the brink of redefining herself and the entire nation she represents?....oh never mind I’m flipping over to Love Island whilst I buy something nice off of boohoo.com.”
So many brands are jumping on this bandwagon that it can be hard to pick them out of a line up. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, it’s just like when everyone’s got Cherry Red Doc Martens, they’re just not that cool anymore.
Making people feel something doesn’t mean you have to pull at the heartstrings. In the rush to say something with meaning about the property we sponsor and the credible role of our brand, the danger is we slightly overlook another important way of engaging with emotion. And that is to make people laugh.
Laughter is a form of transcendent escapist joy that is almost without parallel. A genuine belly laugh makes you forget for one brief moment the crushing, horrible reality of the human condition. Does a more pure and primal and emotion exist? Getting people to laugh is, of course, hard. We’ve all told a joke that fell flat on its face. Not a good place to be. So it takes some guts for a brand to tell a joke, but if you get it right, you’ve brightened up someone’s day and made something stick in their mind. You’ve given yourself a role without the need for a carefully constructed tag line connecting brand and product and property. It’s great to see brands like Nissan breaking from the norm and making us laugh, by sending up the role of sponsors in a way that pleasantly reminds of Wayne’s World.
In the context of superhuman and heroic sporting ability, humour acknowledges the common humanity that links us all. If our most feted Olympians can have a laugh and poke fun at themselves (and others!), it brings into sharp relief their similarity with us. It reminds us that they are just people too. People who have had a bit of luck, allowed themselves to dream, and then worked hard to never give up on that dream. What could be more inspiring and emotional than that?
Will Nicholls is managing partner of BBH Sport, the agency behind the Samsung School of Rio campaign which sees comedian Jack Whitehall being schooled by Olympic and Paralympic Games legends