The Olympics Branding Problem

Sure, I got teary-eyed watching a short bio on Simone Biles on and issued triumphant fist pumps when Kenyan Vivian Cheriuyot overcame an impressive lead by favorite Almaz Ayana of Ethiopia to win the 5,000 meter, her first gold medal in four Olympics.

But I did not watch much of the Olympics. After reading a bunch of hoopla about how ratings were down, particularly among Millennials, I saw that clearly I was not alone. Many pundits have been saying NBC didn’t offer its programing at the right proportions on the right channels (i.e., more real-time online streaming). 

That very well may be true, but the Olympics also have branding improvement opportunities that could boost viewership of future Games.

Olympics should better tie into Millennial values

Millennials are less patriotic, per Pew, and more apt to view themselves as global citizen, says Foreign Affairs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still rabidly patriotic, particularly when U.S. Soccer is involved, but a competition that explicitly pits countries against each other may resonate less with Millennials. Obviously, let’s not cancel the Olympics because of this emerging mindset, but perhaps in addition to the competition, the Olympics should give Millennials more ways to contribute to the betterment of the host nation and world.

Brands, the Olympics no exception, must take responsibility for their supply chains

As evidenced by the Fairtrade label’s 20 years of sales growth through 2014, per the Guardian, consumers are keen to buy products they know were created via ethical supply chains. The country of Brazil is a key cog of the 2016 Olympics’ supply chain. With stories of construction deaths, bacteria-infested waters, and residents being forced out of their neighborhoods to make room for new facilities, it is clear the “fairness” of the Olympic supply chain is in question. “Fairness is extremely important to Millennials,” said Aria Finger, CEO of at Sustainable Brands San Diego 2016. “And that’s the lens [through which] they see the world.” Perhaps fewer Millennials tuned in to the Olympics because they observed a lack of fairness in the Olympics supply chain. If the Olympic Committee is truly invested in putting on a sustainable, ethical Games, they should work with their host “supplier” to overcome challenges, or choose a host partner with the infrastructure already in place to deliver a sustainable event (cough, Los Angeles 2024).

The Olympics must improve its consumer trust

Consumers want to buy brands they trust. Nothing new there. However, with an IOC member arrest, athlete scandals (DUIs, doping, a brothel, Lochte), and questionable treatment of the Brazilian people, I would wager trust levels with the Olympics brand are low. A little bit of humble acknowledgement of imperfections might help. To further quote Aria Finger, “Millennials don’t expect brands to be flawless…what they expect…is for [brands] to be transparent and honest.”

After the event, the Olympics issued this glowing summary of all of the great benefits that the Olympics will bring to Brazil, most of which are probably true. However, without some acknowledgement of the Rio Olympics failures, it may be hard for some Millennials to believe. A simple “things may not have gone exactly as planned, but…” could have gone a long way to disarm those ready to pounce on the Olympics for things that went poorly.

Give viewers a better chance to build relationships with athletes 

In a great article by Andrew Wallenstein of Variety, he suggests that the Olympics need to build a longer lead time into promotions for the games to get people more excited about the athletes and invested in the Games. I agree. I’d argue most of the Olympics’ brand equity resides with the athletes. Therefore, the Olympics should be investing in Olympic hopefuls, helping them to build their personal brands. Not only for the benefit of keeping the Olympics top of mind during non-Olympics years, but also as a fair supply chain Millennials consumers can respect and get behind, one that finds ways to take care of its athletes, most of whom are not paid well for their work.

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