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Olympics Focus | Sponsors tell the story

‘REAL-TIME MARKETING’ is a phrase you are likely to hear a great deal later this year as Rio puts on its best face to stage the Olympic Games. If London 2012 was the first truly digital Olympics, Rio represents a further four years of evolution and a closer alignment of the dreams of marketers, and the capability of technology to make them come true.

While there are various definitions of realtime marketing and what it can be expected to deliver, it essentially centres on the ability to engage with audiences through content created around a specific event and delivered in the moment to maximise relevance and impact.

It’s a broad definition and, in theory at least, real-time marketing campaigns can be run around any event that captures the public imagination – from a TV reality show to a general election. It’s all about engagement resulting in fascination for a shared experience.


The Olympic Games tick all the right boxes, creating perfect conditions for real-time marketing to succeed. For the 17 days of competition and beyond, it will suck up global attention like nothing else. It will produce moments of brilliance and drama, of unimaginable tension and utter desolation. Jubilation and despair will be framed in the same images, shared with a captivated world through television, digital and social media.

As former NBC Olympics chief Dick Ebersol would tell anybody willing to listen, presenting the Olympics is all about telling stories. Every athlete from every country in every sport has a story to tell and, by extension, so does every official and every fan. And while that has always been the case, Rio 2016 will see a new emphasis on telling those stories and delivering them in new and timely ways.

But now it’s not just the impressive team of Games broadcasters who are in the content creation and story-telling business; everybody is doing it, particularly the Olympic ‘TOP’ partners – that group of 10 global corporations whose millions help put and keep the show on the road.

According to Timo Lumme, managing director of IOC Media and Marketing Services, and the man ultimately responsible for delivering the IOC’s global sponsorship, “there’s a real buzz around real-time marketing for Rio.”

He says: “It reflects the new ways of reaching people and is an indication of the ways in which partner activation has changed and continues to change as the media available has changed.”

In many ways that’s the beauty of the Olympic Games. It’s an event which transcends sport and has become a pillar of shared 21st century global culture. It’s an event the world understands and values and, while delivery and accessibility may change, the world loves its traditions and appears to respect its values; values which continue to be sorely tested in some respects, but which continue to endure in an uncertain world.

Ultimately, the value of the Olympic Games hinges on appreciation of its brand and Lumme has the research to underscore its enduring appeal.

“We conduct research after every Games and the recognition and appeal have the highest awareness of any sports or entertainment event,” he says.

“Our monthly research shows that the ‘de jour’ events – such as the doping scandal in athletics – which might be expected to affect views, actually have very little impact.

“The research is deep and robust across 17 territories, and indicates that the Olympic brand remains very strong.

“There is increasing demand for the broadcast product, reflecting the continuing reach and appeal of the brand. Indeed, unaided recognition of the Olympic Rings was 93 per cent and as high as 99 per cent in some markets.”


The ‘Olympic Partners (TOP) Programme’ was introduced for the Seoul summer Games of 1988, based on the principles that had been used to sell Los Angeles ‘84 to corporate America. Instead of a scattergun, often highly localised approach to selling and developing partnerships, exclusive rights were sold in clearly demarcated categories to brands that were willing to pay a premium price for the association, the reach and the convenience of not having to stitch together a patchwork of deals with individual territories and National Olympic Committees. What they didn’t get, of course, was the field-of-play visibility associated with other global sports partnerships, effectively making brands work harder and be more creative to harness their brand messages to the power of the Games. The result has been some of the best sports-related advertising and sponsorship activation ever seen.

“The core fundamentals of the Olympic Partners programme have not changed, but the context certainly has,” Lumme says. “That is because over the 30 years it has been running, corporate markets have changed. The fact is that the applicability of TOP is strong, not just among consumer-facing brands, but those in technology, industrial and service sectors.

“The basic package is the same, but it is important to understand the objectives that drive a corporation’s involvement and they can be very different. Those range from sales and brand augmentation to international communications and staff motivation to (brand) legacy.

“We have found companies from a broader swathe of the corporate sector coming into the programme. Look at GE and Dow, both of whom have an industrial heritage.

“What we have been able to achieve is a throughput of new companies, each creating bespoke programmes and activations. Each company wants an area they can own and we work with them to help develop those programmes.”


In the future, Lumme and the TOP partners will have an additional media asset at their disposal.

Although it won’t be on air, the IOC’s new Olympic Channel will be in action in Rio, capturing content for future use, and TOP partners will, according to Lumme, have the opportunity to reinforce their relationships with the Games and the IOC on what he describes as “a 21st century digital platform.”

The ability to find new ways of bringing major corporations to the table was illustrated in March 2015, when the IOC announced that Japanese company Toyota was to become the first car manufacturer to join TOP. At previous Games, the category had been left as part of the domestic sponsorship programme, but Toyota was reportedly willing to pay $835m (€745m) for a deal that kicks in after Rio and runs through to 2024, covering the 2018 winter Games in South Korea, Toyota’s ‘home’ Games in Tokyo two years later and then Beijing in 2022. The 2024 Games will be held in a major European capital or the US.

While it’s a big-ticket item even for a corporation of Toyota’s stature, it is clearly the right deal at the right time for the right price. Value is always in the eye of the buyer – a factor that demands that the IOC adopts a realistic and flexible approach when it comes to defining TOP programme categories and determining which are best sold locally. The success of the recent domestic sponsorship programmes, notably those in Sochi and Rio, had led some observers to conclude that they were so lucrative that the days of TOP were numbered. That is not a notion Lumme has time for.

“The idea that TOP had run its course is an old argument and is belied by the fact that in the (Thomas) Bach era we have generated $15bn in new revenues across TOP and media sales,” he says.

“When we take decisions about which categories should be part of TOP we look carefully at the potential financial impact on the Local Organising Committees that operate the domestic programmes to help finance staging the Games. The argument is whether we should use the category and then provide those (LOCs) with additional benefits or should we let them do it.

“As the world becomes more global, fresh categories come up for review. For example, insurance had always been a TOP category, but is currently local. Mobility (auto) has been local, but is now global.

“There was a moment in time when we hadn’t been back into the market for a while, because we had done long-term deals. Since we have been back in, we have seen great pricing and companies are now paying a premium for global rights.”


With media developments such as 8K being showcased at Rio and virtual becoming a genuine reality, Lumme is excited about future development in partnerships.

“Our broadcast rights-holders are delivering new and better ways for TOP partners to be involved in their output and Rio will be the first truly social Games, driving levels of traffic and interaction that have simply never been seen before.

“So far as activation is concerned, partners are looking for ways to find a broader and deeper association with the property and its brand while not neglecting what is tried, tested and known to work.”

That’s certainly true of Procter & Gamble, the TOP partner behind a bouquet of brands, including Bounty wipes, Tide washing powder and Pampers. Its ‘Thank You Mom’ campaign proved a major hit and there is unlikely to be a dry eye anywhere near a TV set during the Games on the evidence of a spot launched on YouTube back in April which had, by mid-May, been viewed nearly 14 million times. Effective Olympic marketing is, in large part, about tapping into universal themes and emotions. They simply don’t come more universal than motherhood.

“For us, it is all about making the Games more relevant,” Lumme says. “Agenda 2020, with its emphasis on the role of the Games, athletes and sport in general in society, does that by focusing on making the Olympics relevant 365 days a year. The Olympic brand has to remain strong and Agenda 2020 is making it stronger.

“Developing media technology is providing new opportunities via linear broadcasts and in other ways, while our media-rights strategy is designed to maximise the presence and relevance of the Games.

“We are seeing our traditional (broadcast) platforms going from strength to strength and although digital output is still expanding, it still lags behind in financial terms.”

The world is changing fast and Lumme sees the ability to remain flexible and respond quickly to opportunities as key to a successful future.

“We have to retain the nimbleness of the TOP construct and be able to help partners leverage the involvement as new opportunities emerge,” he says. But some things never change. At the centre of it all is the over-riding need to balance the revenue that can be generated from broadcast rights with the exposure that gives the Games their wall-to-wall presence.

“It’s about promotion and hard cash,” says Lumme, who knows better than anyone that ultimately the power of partnership lies in the power of the Olympic brand. “Everything flows from a real understanding of the Olympic brand. What we have found is that when you have that platform, it allows creativity to flow. The trick is to be able to make it work across different media for different industry sectors.”


To continue reading the Olympics Focus, please click the links below:

A Question of Influence – A look at Coca-Cola's use of influencers in its sports marketing strategy

Olympic Intentions – A look at Olympic sponsor brand perception in the US and Great Britain (GB) 


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