Brand Humanity of Olympic Proportions

By Lizzy Stallard

Every four years the Olympic Games provide not only the world’s greatest stage for athletes, but a tremendous opportunity for brands to flex their muscles against their rivals too. When it comes to Olympic sponsorship deals, brands invest an enormous amount of time, resources, and billions of dollars. In return in London this year, sponsoring brands gained access to a global audience of 4.8 billion people.

Now that the Games have ended, marketers are focused on the tangible benefits brands experienced. What we should examine are not just immediate, measureable returns, but also what we’ve gained and learned from the Games in 2012 — and the implications for brands going forward.

Firstly, it’s true to say that the idea of celebrating the human spirit has permeated all aspects of the Olympics. This touched London deeply and radiated out to the rest of the world. The performance of sponsoring brands must be seen in this unique context. A staggering 48% of the population of London attended an Olympic event, including many of us in Interbrand’s London office — and the atmosphere was indeed inspiring. The feeling of seeing one’s nation win medals in real time is truly incomparable. We were also moved by the immense generosity of spirit from the likes of the 70,000 “Games Makers,” the volunteers who so generously gave their time at the games. Amazingly, at the Closing Ceremony, it was these ordinary people who received the greatest cheers of support, perhaps more so than the athletes themselves. The mood trans– formed in London, especially on the Underground, where normally even the slightest eye contact is avoided. Yet, during the Olympics, we let down our guard. Strangers casually struck up conversation around their plans for the day ahead — certainly a rarity until we caught the fever of 2012. Somehow, the superhuman nature of the Olympic Games put us back in touch with our own humanity.

It only seems fitting, given the atmosphere, that brands embraced this same humanity — and did so with positive impact. In fact, the notion of “brand humanity” was the overriding theme at the Olympics, and it’s a theme worth exploring. Global personal care giant, Proctor & Gamble, for instance, took brand humanity to new heights with their “Thank You, Mom” campaign. Celebrating the role that mothers play in raising Olympians, the campaign taps into universal sentiment by honing in on the contribution that mothers make in raising successful, well-rounded children. Launched 100 days before the Opening Ceremony, P&G’s biggest campaign in the 175-year history of the company was a huge success, with the supporting brand films garnering almost 15.5 million views around the world. There’s not a product brand in sight, yet its emotional power is unprecedented. The real success of this campaign, of course, is that, without explicitly promoting itself, P&G has accomplished what most marketing efforts fall far short of: inextricably linking the corporate brand with universal human values like family cohesion, mutual love and support, and the dreams of greatness we all have for ourselves and our loved ones. Proving the power of this approach, Interbrand studied consumer associations with this year’s sponsors in the period leading up to the Games and found that P&G enjoyed the greatest increase in brand strength — specifically around values such as credibility and authenticity.

In another example, the official oil and gas sponsor, British Petroleum (BP), initially kicked off its communications effort by focusing on its functional involvement in the Games, such as fueling the Olympic fleet. Interestingly, BP promptly switched to an emotional strategy just four weeks before the Opening Ceremony, when the brand launched its “Here’s to the Home Team” campaign in the UK, spotlighting all those involved in the behind-the-scenes activity — from the groundsmen and organizers to the athletes and other sponsors. Through this campaign we once again witnessed a brand celebrating the human engine that made the Games a reality. Despite BP’s troubled past, our research showed that the brand’s efforts aligned well with Olympic values when compared with other players, such as Dow and GE.

In a similar vein, McDonald’s celebrated people with their “We All Make the Games” campaign. Personal stories captured via guerilla fi lm crews throughout the Park and the wider city center focused on the emotion at the heart of the Olympics. The multichannel campaign allowed spectators to upload photos of themselves getting into the spirit of the Games — McDonald’s received 20,000 submissions leading up to the Opening Ceremony. McDonald’s is also making heroes of ordinary people across other touch points, including in-restaurant. If you’ve walked past a McDonald’s recently, you’ll have noticed their mosaic window displays, capturing portrait photographs of the real people that make the brand — from suppliers to employees to customers. By capturing, replaying and displaying the moments and emotional responses that make the Olympics so moving and special, McDonald’s celebrated humanity at its best. However, while the brand ultimately succeeded in eliciting a positive response, the appropriateness of McDonald’s role as an Olympic sponsor has been questioned. Our research revealed that 25% of those surveyed felt that the brand was a poor fi t with Olympic values. The mixed opinions indicate that many consumers want and expect to see better alignment between the values of sponsoring brands and notions associated with the Olympics, like health and fitness.

EDF Energy also played into the human side, but in a slightly different way. The brand capitalized on conversations that undoubtedly occurred worldwide as people fantasized about what it takes to become an Olympic athlete: “What would it be like?”; “What if?”; “How long would it take me?”. In EDF’s playful UK campaign, two eager technicians “test” the equipment ahead of the Opening Ceremony, by taking to the hurdles in the stadium, swimming a length of the Olympic pool, and trying out various other Olympic events. We’d all love to have a go, and this clever, yet simple, piece taps into the desire or intrigue that all of us non-Olympians have felt at one time or another during the Games. This year also saw the greatest investment from Visa in its 25-year history as an Olympic sponsor. The “Go World” campaign was Visa’s most social ever and put customers firmly at the center, allowing them to cheer on the athletes through social channels. This is a subtle shift from the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 where the brand demonstrated its support for the athletes. However, in 2012, Visa celebrated the athletes along with its cardholders. The more inclusive strategy seems to have paid off — to date, 59 million “cheers” have been posted through social channels, and the Go World YouTube channel has received 47 million views. In hindsight, the level of engagement Visa achieved throughout the Olympics is impressive given the significantly high negative sentiment surrounding the brand at the start of the Games. According to our Brand Playback™ tool, which assessed online sentiment, the exclusivity rights around Visa use were the main contributor to the dissatisfaction many consumers felt.

Those of us from Interbrand’s London office did, of course, see some brands continue to push spine-tingling messaging that focused on the might of the athletes in action — such as the adidas “Take the Stage” campaign, as well as Omega’s “Start Me Up.” However, when we think about the brands that actually cut through in 2012, the most successful were those that resonated with audiences at a far deeper level, celebrating the human spirit, not exceptional human powers.

At this year’s Games, those brands that forged a connection with their customers did so with humanity, acknowledging the participation and accomplishments of everyday people — not just Olympians. Brands that successfully fostered an environment to create customer conversation took home the gold.

A true celebration of the human spirit, it’s no surprise that some are calling the 2012 Olympics “The People’s Games.” The successful brands couldn't have better tapped into that ethos.