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Non-sponsor Virgin Media backs Usain Bolt to deliver brand gold in new Olympic advertising playing field

Unlike previous Olympics, non-sponsors can use Olympians like Usain Bolt in their ads for the Rio Games, a shift Virgin Media is bringing its own four-year tie to the sprinter to the fore.

But this isn’t about ambushing a global event in the usual sense, according to director of brand communications Lloyd Page. Having a prior association with the world’s fastest man means its “business as usual” for Virgin Media in the eyes of people watching the games, he continued, versus other brands featuring the likes of Bolt that will might rouse a cynical eyebrow from viewers all too aware of those trying to cash in on the hype.

This is down to a rule change by Olympic chiefs that means sponsors have to share the big names with brands that have paid nothing to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) or national Olympic committees.

Such a controversial move comes after years of lobbying by athletes, and Virgin Media is one of those brands looking to muscle in on a period they would’ve traditionally been barred from.

However, forging that link hasn’t been straightforward; the brand, like every other non-sponsor wanting in on the games, had to submit a plan for its media campaign on the proviso that it had to be up and running by last March, leaving the IOC enough time to insist on changes to strategies well in advance of the games.

“We’ve worked very closely with the IOC and they’re aware of the campaign,” said Page. “The fact that the campaign actually began in March and will run during the Olympics and beyond means its business as usual as oppose to jumping in and trying guerrilla marketing without the right association.”

The next burst in the campaign is today (22 July) for the Anniversary Games where Bolt is competing as part of his preparation for Rio. Activations will happen in and around the Stratford shopping centre as well as inside the stadium itself, pulling on some of the themes from the ad it launched at the start of the month on the Thames.

Other actions are planned on a calendar of activity set around key moments - the Opening Ceremony (5 August) and then the 100m, 200m and relay finals on the 15, 16 and 17 August respectively. TV will do much of the heavy lifting during these windows, backed by simulcasting on mobile and online. Virgin Media won’t be able to call on the marketing might of some of the other global advertisers circling the games, putting more emphasis on strong content around those planned moments to spread.

“What’s really important is the relationship that we have [with Bolt] is credible and relevant,” Page said of that union’s ability to seize conversation happening around the games.

Bolt clearly gets it, with the sprinter apologising to fans for not being at the launch of the campaign in London earlier this month as well as using the specially-created emoji the brand had made up for him – both seemingly of his own volition

“The best value of marketing, sponsorships, partnerships or brand ambassadors is when you’re forging those relationships over time,” said Page.”[Bolt] is the fastest, we’re the fastest. We have a long-standing relationship that comes to the fore and I think we’ve tried to show another side of Bolt that people perhaps won’t have seen before,” added Page.

Where previous ads have used Bolt to humorously talk up its products, these latest efforts dramatise the importance of speed, while also offering a glimpse into the sprinter’s life and experiences. This is shown in how the main ad is comprised of 10 separate 9.58 second vignettes – the amount of time it took Bolt to break the 100m world record in 2009 – and each segment focuses on a different aspect of the athlete’s life, showing him dancing with friends, struggling with training and as a child.

It’s an approach that appears to be working, with Page praising the early feedback the ad has garnered. Usain Bolt himself retweeted Virgin Media’s senior digital manager Paul Stafford’s post of the video, which has been retweeted 227 times to date, equating to engagement of 31.5 per cent (as a percentage of their account followers), according to Burst Insights. There were some 459 likes of the video, which accounts for engagement of 51.46 per cent (as a percentage of their account followers).

And yet Virgin Media would rather to see how the campaign plays out over the summer before making a call on whether it will continue the concept longer-term. Either way changes are happening and have been since the arrival of chief marketing officer Kerris Bright at the start of 2015.

She’s gone about changing the tone of Virgin Media’s marketing as the business eyes greater brand equity in order to grow in competitive sectors where it is often one of the smaller advertisers against the powerhouses of BSkyB and BT.

This is particularly true of its television business, which is undergoing a radical overhaul – from user interface to content – in order to re-establish itself in a market drastically different to the one it retreated from several years ago. This will peak at the turn of the year when it will unveil a new set-top box to rival Sky Q, with ultra-high definition pictures and the ability to bounce programmes between different devices.

“It’s really important to have the right products and services but in terms of relating to your audience and getting to a positon where audiences are saying this is a brand for me then I think you need to invest in building that brand, which needs to be backed by what you do first and foremost,” said Page.

“You have to deliver against what you’re saying…it’s important that in a world of so much choice that we are really relevant and focused on our core target audience with something that they can relate too.”

To view more marketing insights into Rio 2016 visit The Drum’s Olympics hub here.

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