Cornwell, whose research specializes in sponsorships, says corporate sponsors of the Olympic Games and other sporting events are able to reach captive audiences that traditional advertising may not be able to match. Unlike television commercials, which can be edited or skipped through, sponsorship messages are unavoidable to viewers because they’re etched into screens or venues.
“Sponsorship is embedded in the conversation and can’t be edited out,” Cornwell says.
Aside from just eyeballs, sponsorships send a strong message. They connect companies to the ideals of a particular team or event.
“[Sponsors are] attempting to identify and associate with images surrounding the Olympics—positive, supportive, and healthy,” Cornwell says. “They want these brand associations to move over to their brand.”
And there’s no better global association than one with the Olympic rings.
“The affiliation with the Olympic rings, that’s the magic driver of all Olympic sponsorships,” says William Chipps, senior editor of the IEG Sponsorship Report. “When one looks at these rings, it ties back to what these rings represent. That’s what companies want to tap into.”
Chipps says being able to associate with ideals like performance, excellence, and being the best you can be is what drives company executives to sign multimillion-dollar contracts. That kind of messaging can be much more powerful than a straight media buy, especially given the fragmented media landscape.
“It brings a lot to the marketing table,” Chipps says.
But even companies without contractual ties to the Olympics will work to get in on the gold through what experts call “ambush marketing.” While official sponsors like McDonald’s may not approve, Chipps says, there are many other ways to affiliate with the Games without ever signing any papers.
Subway’s Famous Fans campaign includes Olympic standouts like Apolo Ohno and Michael Phelps alongside well-known professional athletes. The company doesn’t claim to have an official sponsorship, yet the consumer could still perceive an association between the company and the Games. In 2010, McDonald’s leaders took issue with a Subway commercial featuring Phelps because it gave the appearance of a Subway sponsorship.
On a smaller scale, the 52-unit Erbert & Gerbert’s Sandwich Shop offered until June its Apollo sandwich in homage to the original Greek games. All sandwiches at the Wisconsin-based Erbert & Gerbert’s are based on stories, many originating from founder Kevin Schipper’s childhood. The limited-time Apollo was no different, with a complex tale of how Erbert and Gerbert met Apollo, one of 12 Greek gods and goddesses said to live atop Mount Olympus.
While the timing of Apollo’s launch tied in well to Olympic build-up, the sandwich was originally conceived by focus-group results and the company’s desire to target flavor profiles. The Olympics, and the Greek story, were simply a means of marketing the sandwich.
“The conscious effort here was to come up with something that would be of Olympic proportion that would have a heroic background and capture a unique story,” says Chuck Schwalbe, Erbert & Gerbert’s director of marketing.
Though it’s indirect, Schwalbe says the company’s Olympic tie-in delivers a positive association. Further, the Olympic message is one that resonates with many companies.
“It’s an opportunity maybe not so much to tie yourself to it from a commercial standpoint, but to tie yourself to the elements within it that spur on the human condition,” Schwalbe says. “We are, as a company, not struggling, but striving to do our very best and, for lack of a better word, bring the gold in what we do. That is what captures the emotion of people: It’s time to be the best. It’s time to work hard and compete to be the best.”
There are, no doubt, many benefits for unofficial marketing efforts surrounding the Olympics. But these types of efforts can blur the lines for consumers, who may not always be able to tell the difference between official sponsors and those just along for the ride.
In their 2007 book, consultants Kevin Clancy and Peter Krieg cited a study of Olympic sponsorships that showed just how blurry those lines can get. Study participants were as likely to identify brands that advertised heavily during the Games as sponsors as those brands who weren’t official sponsors.
“If all you do is advertise, there’s a good chance you’ll be associated as a sponsor,” Krieg says.
For any sponsorship to be successful, Krieg says, companies must invest as much money and energy into activating the sponsorship—through special offerings, local advertising, sweepstakes, or special events—as they do on the original contract.
The Olympics deliver a diverse and wide audience, which can be key for those companies that compete in an ever-globalizing marketplace.
“It’s a small world,” Krieg says. “I think that’s where a lot of brands probably need to be going now, given globalization and our position in the world.”
Like any other sporting event, sponsors have to know whom they’re targeting and determine whether people who watch the sport are interested in their product. Krieg says the NFL fan base is widespread, while the typical fan of NCAA athletics is an upscale, college-educated male. Different companies will find these different cross sections of consumers desirable, depending on what they’re selling.
The Olympics are much more popular with women than other sporting events, making the Games an even bigger prize for advertisers and sponsors. That market share could be huge for McDonald’s given this year’s push to promote healthy lifestyles.
“That could help them get business with people like moms, who could be drifting away from McDonald’s given health concerns and childhood obesity problems,” Krieg says.
Big-name Olympic sponsors like McDonald’s, Visa, and Coca-Cola probably don’t expect to see immediate growth in sales sprouting from their work with the Games. Krieg sees the goal of such sponsorships as more nuanced. “It’s more about branding and brand building,” he says. “It’s very unlikely to move sales year-over-year. You have to look at it as investing in a brand.”
For McDonald’s, that’s what the sponsorship is all about. The immediate goal isn’t to increase sales or profitability; it’s to be seen as part of the Olympics and borrow from the identities and values the Games represent.
“I don’t know that it’s about the day-to-day business to us. It’s about our association. I think McDonald’s is one of the most recognized brands in the world and the Olympics are probably one of the most recognized cultural events in the world,” Barrett says. “From our perspective, it’s much more than a sponsorship. It’s about association. We believe those values and ideals are very close with ours as a company.”
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