The Olympics — The world’s most powerful brand?

by John Furgurson on March 6, 2010

I love the Winter Olympics.

I got hooked as a boy when Franz Klammer made his infamous gold medal run at the Innsbruck Games, and I’ve been watching ever since. I have to admit, I even watch some of the ice skating. (But no Ice Dancing.)

The summer games are fun too, and it’ll be fun to watch the London Games, but they don’t have the thrill-factor of the winter games. A diver doing a twisting three-and-a-half into a pool just isn’t as compelling as a guy on skis doing a triple with five twists.

Gotta land on your feet and ski away when doing a “Hurricane”.

Olympics branding Vancouver Winter GamesThe Vancouver Games delivered everything I expected from the Olympics, and a little bit more. The event started on a very sad note, with the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, a luge competitor from Georgia. Only one other luge driver has ever died in Olympic competition.

But there have been other unfortunate mishaps over the years. Terrorism in Munich in 1972. The Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles games in 1984. A bomb explosion in Atlanta in 1996.

Every time the games suffer a set-back, the Olympic brand bounces back stronger than ever. The brand is perched on such a high pedestal around the world, it’s almost bullet proof.

Here’s an example: In 1995, the IOC awarded Salt Lake City the Winter Games for 2002.  As it turned out, the decision was fixed. IOC members had taken millions of dollars in bribe money. As a result, the top leaders of the Salt Lake Olympic Committee resigned. Ten members of the IOC were expelled and 10 more were sanctioned.

But the Olympics rose above the fray. By the time the Salt Lake Games commenced, the scandal was all but forgotten. Organizers actually raised the price of corporate sponsorships 30 percent.

In the last 10 years the pricetag for an Olympic sponsorship has risen dramatically. NBC paid $5.7 Billion for television rights through 2012. Visa paid $65 million dollars just for the privilege of associating their brand with the Olympic rings for four years.

No other sporting event commands that kind of attention in the corporate marketing world. You could argue it’s the most desirable brand affiliation on earth.

Why? Because the Olympic brand represents something that goes way beyond athletic competition. It’s the intangible “spirit of the games” that makes it riveting for the audience, and desirable to the corporate world.

Every Olympic Games is filled with real-life stories of triumph and tragedy. Every night for two weeks there are new characters, new story lines, new scenic backdrops, new drama. It’s heroes and underdogs, great feats of strength and stamina juxtaposed with delicate dance moves and tears of joy.

As the San Jose Mercury News put it, “it’s the ultimate reality show.” And we eat it up. It’s human nature. It’s a two-week event, every other year, that has all the components of great brands.

If you’re trying to build a brand of any kind, keep these things in mind, every day:

• The Olympics are authentic and unscripted.

At the Olympics you find ordinary people pursuing their favorite sports, not for the million-dollar endorsement deals but for the pure sense of personal accomplishment. Especially in the winter games. (Even in Canada there can’t be much money in curling.)

The authenticity is obvious in the post-run interviews… The athletes are articulate, less rehearsed and obviously passionate about their sport, and about the Olympics. You don’t get those canned, banal responses like you do in the NFL.

And when it comes to PR damage control, the IOC has handled things pretty well. When Olympic officials went on TV to face questions about the luge incident, the tears were genuinely heartwrenching. No spin whatsoever.

Toyota could learn a thing or two.

Winter olympics in Vancouver Whistler Canada• The Olympics are dramatically different.

Most notably, the Olympics are less commercial than other mega-events like the Superbowl or the soccer World Cup.

There’s no on-field branding allowed in the Olympics. You’ll never see a giant VISA banner hung behind the medals stand or along the boards in the figure skating arena. And the athletes aren’t plastered with logos, ala-Nascar.

At The Games, the Olympic brand always takes precedent over any other type of branding, personal or corporate. So even when you have NHL and NBA stars competing, it’s not about them. It’s about The Games.

The competitors even take an oath. They swear to uphold the tenets of the Olympic Charter and willingly pee in a cup after every event. They are required to put their own, personal gains aside for two weeks and compete “in the spirit of friendship and fair play.”

It may seem a little cheesy, a little old fashioned, but that’s a central element of the Olympic brand.

• The Olympics have remained relevant for more than 100 years.

The characters change, individual events evolve, but at The Olympics, the themes remain consistent.

There’s something uniquely compelling about obscure sports that you’ve never tried, and that you only see during the Olympics…

Ski as fast as you can — uphill — then stop and shoot, without missing.

For people who never ski, it’s hard to relate to ski racing of any kind. Same can be said for the skating events… The general public has no concept of the difficulty and physical demands of a 4-minute program. It looks too easy.

And even though most people can’t relate, they still watch. The Vancouver Olympics drew massive television audiences, even beating out American Idol in the Neilson ratings. Almost 35 million Americans tuned in to the last part of the gold medal hockey game. And in Canada, 80% of the population watched at least part of that game.

And hockey wasn’t the only big draw. Overall ratings in the U.S. were up 25 percent over the 2006 games in Torino. This year, snowboarding, skier-cross and short track speed skating helped bring in record audiences among the 12 to 24 year-old demographic. Just as I was enthralled with Franz Klammer, a whole new generation will be inspired by Shawn White and Apollo Anton Ohno.

• The brand is way more than a mark.

Five, multi-colored, interlocking rings. That’s the official mark of the games that dates back to 1920. As the Olympic Charter states, the rings “represent the union of the five continents and the meeting of athletes from throughout the world at the Olympic Games.”

But the Olympic brand is much richer and more meaningful than that.

You’ll often hear brand managers and consultants talking about “core brand values” and the underlying meaning of great brands.  When you watch the Olympics, and get sucked into the storylines, you can see what they mean.

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Pennsylvania personal injury lawyer March 8, 2010 at 4:19 pm

Thank you for all the great posts from last year! I always get great information from your blog. God bless you this 2010.

Andy September 6, 2011 at 5:04 pm

The Olympic brand is an amazingly powerful commercial brand, which most hosts will do anything to accommodate, even change tax laws!

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