It takes a breathtaking amount of dedication, sacrifice, perseverance and struggle to prepare for and compete in the Olympics. That’s true for rising athletes and returning Olympians alike, as we’re reminded by NBC’s steady stream of inspiring biographical videos.
But it’s also true for marketers. To “compete” as an advertiser in one of the world’s most high-profile, most-watched events is more daunting than ever. So let’s sympathize for a moment with those that make the Olympics possible—big brands. And let’s also ask a question: Is it worth it?
It all depends, of course, on what you’re paying, how effectively you can convey your brand message and your ultimate ROI. Consider some of the specific challenges involved in trying to go for the marketing gold:
Breaking through the Olympics telecast clutter
Global-level sponsors of the Olympics pay in the neighborhood of $200 million for a four-year contract, according to multiple reports. And plenty of brands that can’t afford that price tag sponsor individual athletes, while others simply back the Olympics coverage by buying ad time. All of these backers are competing in an increasingly diffuse media arena, thanks to NBCUniversal’s decision to engage in better-than-blanket coverage, presenting a record-setting 6,755 hours of programming from Rio across NBC and its sibling networks. As NBCU itself put it, “That's roughly 356 hours of coverage per day (19 days). If the 6,755 hours ran on one channel, it would take 281 days to finish airing.”
New competition from non-official sponsors
Recent rule changes—specifically involving the 40th rule of the International Olympic Committee—have arguably made it harder for the biggest sponsors to truly stand out. As Econsultancy recently explained, “The 40th rule originally stated that during the ‘blackout,’ i.e., the period of time starting a few days before the games and ending a few days after, non-sponsors were forbidden from featuring or mentioning athletes in any form of advertising. While strict regulations still stipulate that words such as ‘Olympics,’ ‘gold,’ or even ‘summer,’ depending on the context cannot be used, the rule was recently relaxed so that brands can run ads featuring athletes from March up until after the event.”
Consumers aren’t necessarily paying close attention to Olympic sponsors
Not only do big-ticket official sponsors now have to compete with non-official sponsors who indirectly join the Olympics bandwagon via Rule 40, but it’s hard for anyone to keep them straight. As Advertising Age reported in 2012 as the London games began, “Consumers Don't Really Know Who Sponsors the Olympics,” citing a survey that had large numbers of respondents saying that the likes of Nike and Pepsi were Olympics sponsors (they weren’t).
The great logo cover-up
The high-stakes sponsorship game surrounding the Olympics and its athletes is impeding the social-visual culture increasingly at the core of modern media and consumer lifestyles. As The New York Times reported in early August in a story headlined “Olympic Cover-Up: Why You Won’t See Some Shoe Logos,” athletes are often compelled to cover up brand logos on their gear because they’re required to do so by their backers who compete with those brands—or because they don’t want to give free exposure to brands that aren’t paying them.
Some sponsor brands are more photogenic and shareworthy than others
The very nature of some Olympic backers arguably might make them a strange fit for the Games. Our analysis of worldwide Olympic partners using image-recognition software that automatically detects the presence of logos in images shared on social media suggests that marketers with products that can be readily co-branded and stylized have the best chance of leveraging their sponsorship into social buzz. Consider, for instance, Coca-Cola, which has released special-edition Olympics cans that fans seem eager to photograph and share.
Given the explosion of image-centric social platforms including Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr, particularly among millennials, and the rising science of image-recognition software that senses when consumers are “talking” about brands through photos, we now have the ability to literally see if sports fans really care about which brands have allied with the Olympics.
For some sponsors, this new way of looking at social conversation could very well offer an eye-opening, and sobering, lesson.