Olympics offers marketers golden opportunities

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So your personal Olympics aspirations might have fizzled out somewhere between getting cut from the high school track team and embarking on a world-class corporate career. But that doesn't mean you can't still get to the Games, figuratively speaking, as a marketer.

Opportunities are increasing for companies to align their brands with the world's most recognized sporting event. And not just the Coca-Colas and McDonald's of the world. With a little creativity and marketing savvy, experts say, business-to-business marketers can land a spot in the Olympic arena, too.

The playing field

If you want to get in the Games, it's important to understand the playing field—no easy task given the many levels at which the Olympics operate. Mary O'Connor, director of Olympic Games for the Marketing Arm, a sports, entertainment and event marketing agency, said there are several different sources of Olympic marketing opportunities.

Perhaps the best known is the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the nonprofit organization that manages The Olympic Partner sponsorship program (TOP). The IOC owns all rights to the Olympic symbols, flag, motto, anthem, etc.

In addition, there are 203 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) around the world responsible for the development of their countries' Olympic teams. Examples include the U.S. Olympic Committee and the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Then there are the Organizing Committees of the Olympic Games. After a city is selected to host the Games, that country's NOC forms an Organizing Committee to oversee that function. (Active Organizing Committees include the Organizing Committee for Beijing 2008 and the Organizing Committee for Vancouver 2010.)

In the U.S., the Olympic team (Team USA) is subdivided into specific sports teams, such as USA Basketball or USA Table Tennis. These teams, managed by national governing bodies (NGBs), offer marketing opportunities separate from that of Team USA. Finally, companies can secure sponsorships or arrange marketing activities with individual athletes.

Sponsorships have long been the foundation of Olympic marketing campaigns. "For as many product categories that exist, there are sponsorship opportunities," said Kevin Wamsley, Olympic historian and a professor at the University of Western Ontario.

The catch is, associations with this premier brand aren't cheap. Use of the Olympic marks—everything from the five-ring logo to the words "Olympic," "Olympiad" or "Olympian" —is strictly regulated. Exclusive rights are afforded to sponsors at the highest levels, and TOP sponsors are protected from competition .

The complexity of the system can be daunting, but that shouldn't deter companies from exploring ways to associate with the Games at lower investment thresholds. "There are [sponsorship] opportunities with the smaller properties—for example, going to a USA Triathlon or USA Boxing … and helping impact those sports and athletes," O'Connor said.

Alternatively, companies can ink sponsorship deals at the athlete level. "If you impact the life of one athlete, you are impacting the strength of the U.S. Olympic Team," she added.

William Chipps, senior editor of the "IEG Sponsorship Report," suggested prospective sponsors think creatively about how an Olympic relationship can serve their business. For example, if an organization supplies a sporting event with products or services, it might set up "behind the scenes tours" for clients and prospects to showcase the brand in action.

Mary Griswold, deputy general manager at Edelman, said IBM Corp. took a similar approach for the Sydney Olympics, developing marketing around the scoring and operations technology it provided. "It was the ultimate case study," she said. "If we can help put on the world's largest athletic competition, imagine what we can do for you."

Thinking outside the Games

Olympic marketing can be a full-time job. "If you look at the Winter and Summer Games, with all the teams that compete year-round to prepare, Olympic competitions really do happen 365 days a year," O'Connor said.

In other words, there's value to be derived from associating one's brand with the hundreds of Games events and athletes, not to mention success stories that emerge in the competitions' wake. Companies can tap into this by using Olympic hopefuls for "meet and greets" with clients.

Though not an Olympic sponsor, Webcor Builders, a general contractor, has established a connection between its company and excellence in America's cycling scene. The company began sponsoring a local amateur cycling club in 1999. That club went on to spawn a highly successful women's professional cycling team (which Webcor also sponsors) comprised of several Beijing Olympic hopefuls.

In return for Webcor's support, the Webcor Build-ers Women's Professional Cycling Team participates in company events. It also acts as Webcor's "sustainability mascots," said Ted Huang, the company's director of cycling programs and sustainability engineer. A key aspect of Webcor's brand identity is a commitment to acting and building responsibly—something the athletes help drive home. Their uniforms feature a "Webcor Go Green" logo and they act as positive community role models.

Huang said the brand recognition Webcor has achieved through the sponsorship is priceless. But the company had to work to make it a success. "[The team] has to have good management that's on the same wavelength as the sponsor, and frequent communication and alignment of goals are crucial," he said.

Working the Games

Finally, as one of the world's premier hospitality venues, the Olympic Games cannot be overlooked for on-site marketing potential. Robert Tuchman, president and founder of TSE Sports & Entertainment, said Olympic hospitality can be used to reward top salespeople or as an incentive for customers to buy certain products or services. "You can see your revenue move on that incentive or that contest," he said.

Companies can also entertain VIP clients or prospects on-site to establish the type of camaraderie that can only come from sharing a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

In addition to Olympic hospitality, O'Connor recommended companies consider hosting clients at the Paralympic Games, which occur just after the Olympics in the same host city.

"[The Paralympics] is easier to get tickets to attend and just as enjoyable," she said. Best of all, "some of the most inspirational and touching stories that link back to business values—determination, overcoming obstacles and the power to succeed—are those of the Paralympic athletes."

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