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How sponsorship has (and hasn’t) changed since the London 2012 Olympics


By Seb Joseph, News editor

April 27, 2016 | 7 min read

There are 100 days to go until the Olympic flame is lit in Rio, but what lessons learned from London 2012 will help sponsors thrive at a time when corruption and cheating seem closer to sport than they ever have previously?

How sponsorship has (and hasn’t) changed since the London 2012 Olympics.

Three months from the start of the Games and it feels like the calm before the storm. There’s been such a low-key build-up to the tournament this year that it can only mean a wave of activations are imminent. A cautionary approach is somewhat expected given Olympic marketers have always been fearful of clashing with the Euros, but the immediacy of media may have convinced many they’ll be able to resonate with fans at speed.

Look back to London 2012 when personalisation at scale was not as sophisticated as it is now and its clear why marketers might be feeling confident about delaying their activations. And yet there lies the rub; with strategies locked in from as early as 18 months out, the conundrum for Rio 2016 sponsors like Nissan and Skol, which don’t have the experience of the likes of Adidas and Coke, is when to fire the starting gun. Does a marketer go out and set out their Olympic stool ahead of the Euros to deliver against objectives by the time the event comes, or is it better to wait and rely on a strong idea to rise above the clutter once it’s all been pushed out online?

Time will tell whether it’s better to stick or twist.

For P&G, the business has opted to stick, launching the latest iteration of its global ‘Thank You Mum’ Olympic strategy today (27 April) in the hope it can steal a march on rivals. Unlike others, the FMCG company’s campaign has equity earned from the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics it can lean on in order to drive whatever metrics it prioritises for the 10 to 12 brands it will activate under the master strategy in 30 markets.

Similarly, Visa, another top tier Olympic sponsor, sees its role as driving consumer engagement in the run up to the event. As the event gets closer, some of the financial firm’s markets will push its Team Visa athletes to amplify their local activity. They will celebrate their performances throughout the Games as well as creating bespoke content in line with the campaign. During the Games, Visa will also be deploying NFC-enabled terminals to allow athletes, fans and cardholders to pay via their mobile phone.

How Nissan or Skol stands up to that level of coordination and precision will be one of the biggest marketing takeaways from Rio. Key to that success will be whether those brands insist on still buying audiences using the way of sponsorships of old or opt to connect with a community of passionate fans.

It’s no secret that senior marketers increasingly see sponsorships as a core part of brand strategy, enlightened by a London 2012 that demonstrated it could drive real business value. That value requires sponsorships to span a longer activation period, something that can only feasibly be done if marketers practise what they preach on the wider marketing strategies for their brands. When P&G, McDonald’s or Coca-Cola finally unveil their campaigns, they will be built on wider brand plans, making it easier and cheaper to fulfil sponsorships because many of the internal processes – from newsrooms to referral processes – have been honed over time.

For all the sophistication around sponsorship, there will still be those brands that get it wrong this summer. However, sports marketing experts remain hopeful of the good examples outshining the bad in spite of their reservations. Speaking on The Drum’s bus during Advertising Week Europe earlier this month (21 April), senior executives from M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment, BBH Sport, Copa90 owner Bigballs Films and New Balance’s creative agency Zak all advised Olympic brands not to get seduced by the slick activations of those sponsors that have been doing it for years.

"There will be brands that come out and say ‘we want to beat Adidas this year’," warned Bigballs Media’s chief commercial officer Nick Bourne, drawing comparisons between the mistakes Euros sponsors will make in France with their Olympic counterparts in Rio. “That’s like trying to beat ‘Ben & Jerry’s’ at an ice cream competition. It’s what Adidas do, so if they’re not nailing it then they have a problem... You have to look at the next tier of sponsors [after the global ones] which aren’t actually involved in the game and see how they’re doing it properly.”

A big part of that is down to brands having the structure in place to react to sporting moments quickly. “Brands like Paddy Power have worked out the best way for their creative and internal teams to produce a slick piece of reactionary content as quickly as possible,” explained Matt Bennett, co-founder of Zak. “You need to understand your brand inherently and then you need to have ensure there you can get approval fast and that there needs to be a level of trust before it’s been sent out.”

All this will play out against the backdrop of doping allegations in athletics from last year that has already turned Adidas off the sport. As unfortunate as it is, the volume of scandals at organisations like the International Association of Athletics Federations and Fifa has tipped the balance of power more in favour of sponsors.

“Over the last few years the International Olympics Committee and Fifa have had extreme control over sponsors and actually what’s happening with Fifa, for example, is giving more of the balance back to the sponsors,” opined Luisa Fernandez, managing partner at BBH Sport. “Rights holders need to adapt more and be more flexible with how they develop packages and work with brands.”

M&C Saatchi Sport and Entertainment chief executive Steve Martin continued on this point: “You’re seeing a lot of these big brands rebelling a bit and being a lot stronger however you’ll notice that they haven’t suddenly dropped the sponsorship. There’s a reason for that – it’s that all these big ticket events like the Olympics have extraordinary reach.

“The sponsorship game is changing but it’s not true that no one cares about the infrastructure of the game. Fans obviously have different issues that they care about like ticket prices and how they watch games, which are all fundamental to how they enjoy sports. But I think the way that brands interact with rights holders is still important,” concluded Martin.

The World Cup in 2014 wasn’t the overwhelming success for brands many had predicted, as evidenced by the likes of Coca-Cola and McDonald’s failing to see big sales spikes in key markets around the tournament. That’s likely to be playing on the minds of sponsors on the road to Rio, but the rewards to be reaped are many. There are huge fanbases, which, thanks to social media, are almost like movements now. They are ready to be engaged and are ready for a story. It amounts to a perfect storm gathering; only those marketers brave enough to enter will be able to prosper once the Games are over.

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