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Controversy and legacy: What the endurance of the Olympics movement can teach brands

Sport is no stranger to scandal… from doping athletes to corruption at Fifa's top table. This leaves trust in short supply, and excitement surrounding global superstars – like Usain Bolt – can be like a short-term sticking plaster. As fans, we all know the tarnish that scandal leaves in our minds, but what about the impact it has on long-term brand associations and sponsorships?

Take football for example. We’re still riding high on the Leicester City fairy tale, but Fifa's longstanding corruption scandal has left a nasty taste in the mouths of fans. So bad, in fact, that a study by Transparency International back in February this year found that less than 20 per cent of football fans have faith in Fifa. In a world where sports fans value honesty and trustworthiness above all else, why would brands risk being associated with Fifa?

And, it’s not just football that has its flaws. The Olympic movement hasn’t always been perfect either. Yet, despite boycotts, bans and bidding scandals, it continues to outperform all other global sporting, cultural and entertainment events. According to Sponsorship Intelligence, the Olympics not only wins on appeal, but scores higher than many other global brands on values such as inclusiveness, inspiration and excellence. Why so? Well, this is mostly down to the brand’s miraculous ability to withstand (numerous) sporting scandals.

So. As we look ahead to Rio 2016, here’s our take on what all brands can learn from the Olympics.

1. Have a cause

The Olympic movement is about building a better world through sport. Pretty hard to object to, right? That higher purpose goes beyond what any customer might expect from the event itself. It ties the movement together and taps into consumer demand for brands to make a difference in the world – like helping to achieve gender equality.

2. Be memorable

A recent study showed that 95 per cent of people can recognise and identify the Olympic rings. Having distinct and memorable assets like this is essential to any brand’s success. The Olympic rings are so powerful that many Olympic athletes even have a tattoo of the symbol – proudly showing the world they’re part of the tribe.

3. Tell universal stories

Hope & Optimism; Dreams & Aspiration; Friendship & Fair Play; Joy in Effort.

Whether it’s Jesse Owens winning five gold medals at the infamous 1936 Berlin Games, or fans being inspired by London 2012 to get off the sofa and go out for a run – everyone can relate to these themes.

4. Show humanity

People are bored of perfection. Sure, it’s great to see superstars, but engaging Olympic stories are as much about humanity as they are achievement. My personal favourite is Derek Redmond’s father helping him limp over the 400m finish line with a torn hamstring in the 1992 Barcelona Games (*sheds a tear while typing*). As a brand, it’s ok not to be perfect – it makes you more relatable.

5. Create experiences

With the Olympic brand, the power isn’t in the organisation, it’s in the experience. For fans and Olympians alike, it’s an experience worth talking about. In today’s experience economy, all brands should try and create ‘chat-worthy’ moments, like the London Olympics did through its opening ceremony; it was tweeted nearly 10 million times worldwide.

6. Build a legacy

This is the real kicker. In a climate where people are looking to avoid short-termism from brands, the legacy that’s built into every Olympic Games gives it credibility. It shows that the organisation is simply a temporary custodian – never the defining image. What will your brand’s legacy be?

So there you have it: six reasons why the Olympic movement continues to be such a huge success. It shows humanity and puts the brand experience centre stage – things that any brand could put into practice every day.

Deborah Stafford-Watson is provocation partner at Elmwood

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