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    Let the Games Begin

  • Both official and unofficial sponsors are looking to capture marketing gold with the Olympics.

    flickr / DAVID HOLT
    The Olympic rings greet passengers as they arrive at the Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras International railway station

    Visually, the five interlocking rings that have become synonymous with the Olympic Games are fairly simple, but they deliver an iconic message. They speak to thrilling competition, achievement at the highest level, and the pride and patriotism of nations. The rings have come to be one of the world’s most recognizable symbols—fitting given that the Olympics are one of the world’s strongest brands.

    While athletes have prepped for years for their shot at a medal in the 2012 Olympics in London, marketing executives at companies big and small have spent months strategizing how they can snag some
    Olympic gold of their own.

    Unlike professional or intercollegiate athletics, the Olympics offer a powerful international platform. Television alone brings in billions of viewers from more than 200 countries across the globe, and, because the Olympics span two weeks, the opportunities to be seen and heard are more prevalent than at one-off sporting events, which don’t provide the magnitude or diversity of viewers.

    The Games can propel athletes and nations alike from obscurity to stardom. And the opportunity to associate oneself or one’s company with the Olympics draws millions in annual sponsorships to the Games. But even those who don’t have an official relationship with the International Olympic Committee can try to get in on the action, as unaffiliated companies launch marketing and advertising campaigns seeking an indirect tie to the Games.

    Between 2005 and 2008, Olympic partners invested nearly $900 million to secure official sponsorships of the Games in Torino, Italy, and Beijing. Such corporate sponsorships account for about 40 percent of all Olympic revenue. This summer’s London Olympics will include 11 companies in The Olympic Partnership, the Games’ official sponsorship program. For that money, companies get prime-time exposure and are able to leverage their brand identities with the Olympics and all that the Games represent.

    McDonald’s, a marquee sponsor of the Olympics, will again host a cadre of events and programs at the Olympics. Its two Olympic Park restaurants will feed thousands of spectators, while other specially built McDonald’s restaurants will feed athletes and journalists in London.

    The Central McDonals’s in olympic Village will seat about 1,500 hungry fans.

    McDonald’s has had its hands in the Games since 1968, when the company airlifted hamburgers to competitors in Grenoble, France. London’s Games are the ninth consecutive in which McDonald’s will feed athletes as the Official Restaurant of the Olympic Games. Company officials say Olympic athletes want to eat McDonald’s at the Games. A survey at the 2010 Vancouver games found that 92 percent of athletes had a positive reaction to having McDonald’s food on-site.

    “We know that the athletes love and want McDonald’s to be there,” says Dean Barrett, global marketing officer and senior vice president for McDonald’s Corporation.

    The central McDonald’s in Olympic Village will seat about 1,500 hungry fans, and the company expects to feed about 1.75 million meals across its four Olympic locations. To do that, 2,000 of the company’s top workers will be brought in from the United Kingdom and from around the world to form the largest McDonald’s crew ever.

    The company has offered that once-in-a-lifetime reward to the highest-performing employees since 2000. And executives see the program as a way to tie the idea of being your best between the company and the Games.

    “It’s a great example of a great fit between McDonald’s and the Olympics. We have some of the best employees in the world,” Barrett says. “It’s the heart and soul of what we stand for.”

    This year, the world’s largest burger chain will roll out its “Champions of Play” campaign, which seeks to promote healthy and active lifestyles for kids. The company will recruit up to 200 children from across the globe to attend the London Games, learn about healthy eating, and spend time with Olympic athletes.

    Barrett says the move is in line with the company’s goal of involving children in the Games and promoting healthy lifestyles. The program will emphasize eating smart and playing hard with the use of chef demonstrations and healthy eating tips in Happy Meals, which will include fruit and vegetable options. The program’s reach will be expanded beyond London with special materials and resources placed in restaurants and online that encourage balanced eating and fun play.

    “I think what we’re doing is taking it a step further in terms of really creating a program to get kids involved in the Olympics and to get them involved in the spirit of fun play,” Barrett says. “The best way to play and get active is to eat smart.”

    Of course, some might raise their eyebrows at the thought of a quick-service burger chain leading the way on health issues, especially on a stage as bright as the Olympics.

    “It sort of promotes this idea you could have a healthy physique, participate in sports, and look like these [Olympic athletes], while at the same time eating fast food. While it’s possible, most would argue that’s not really the case,” says T. Bettina Cornwell, the Edwin E. and June Woldt Cone professor of marketing and director of research for the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon’s Lundquist College of Business.

    But if McDonald’s is serious about promoting healthy living and committed to providing more healthful foods, Cornwell says, the campaign could be successful. “It has to be something that looks genuine,” she says. “I believe it’s a misrepresentation to the public unless they’re really serious about it.”