Coca-Cola Begins 2012 Olympic Promotion a Year Early

Diverse 'Eight-Pack' of Social-Media Savvy Athletes Will Appear on Packaging

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Coca-Cola is kicking off promotion of its "eight-pack" of Olympic athletes a year earlier than it has in the past. The decision to publicly announce the Olympic champions and Olympic hopefuls that will be used on the beverage giant's packaging and in other promotions leading up to the London 2012 Olympic Games was influenced by a number of factors, said Dina Gerson, director-Olympic marketing for Coca-Cola North America.

A recent gathering of major consumer-package-goods players is generating interest from major retailers, and last month's royal wedding put a spotlight on London. Not to mention that the athletes Coca-Cola has selected have an unprecedented presence on social media, with large followings on Facebook and Twitter. In 2008, at the Beijing Olympic Games, Twitter was still in its infancy, while Facebook reached 100 million users the same month those games opened. Today Facebook has more than 500 million users.

"We've gotten so much interest and excitement that we knew it was going to get out, so our team decided we should be in front of this one," Ms. Gerson said, adding that the athletes are always selected this far in advance, so that photo shoots and the like can be scheduled around training and competition schedules.

One reason the industry is already buzzing about the athletes that will grace Coca-Cola packaging is the first Consumer Packaged Goods Summit, held in partnership with the United States Olympic Committee. The summit, held in Colorado Springs, Colo., this spring, included Kellogg, Procter & Gamble and Anheuser-Busch. Ms. Gerson said the concept is for CPG companies to team up as they work on marketing programs with retailers. It's early days, but if all goes as planned, the 2012 Olympic Games could have a bigger presence at retail than past games.

"It's everyone truly coming together and understanding that some of the retailers won't do six separate programs," Ms. Gerson said. "It's a first, and it's a best-in-class program we can build on going forward."

With Coca-Cola already talking to partners about its selected athletes, Ms. Gerson said the athletes themselves are also eager to begin talking about the affiliation. They have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts where fans tune in for updates. Gymnast Shawn Johnson quickly tweeted the news to her 84,000 followers, for example, as did soccer player Alex Morgan and wrestler Henry Cejudo.

"They're young up-and-comers and into the social-media world," said Ms. Gerson. "They're very excited about sharing [the news]. And they have large networks and followings. To bottle that excitement wouldn't be ideal."

The athletes are a diverse group and include several sports and events Coca-Cola hasn't tapped into before during the Olympics, such as diving, tennis, wrestling and women's soccer. The athletes include David Boudia (diving), Mr. Cejudo (wrestling), Marlen Esparza (women's boxing), John Isner (tennis), Ms. Johnson (gymnastics), Jessica Long (paralympic swimming), Ms. Morgan (women's soccer) and David Oliver (hurdles).

Ms. Gerson said that Coca-Cola looks for diversity in sport, gender and ethnicity when preparing its roster. It also takes into consideration public speaking ability, the athletes' story and their potential to medal. Ms. Gerson said medal potential is not the most important thing, however, and it's not even certain whether each of the athletes will actually compete at the games. Coca-Cola has had athletes drop out because of injury or simply have a bad day during trials and not make the cut, Ms. Gerson said.

"It's a risk, absolutely, but they're part of the Coca-Cola family, win, lose or draw," she said. "We looked at over 600 athletes and talked to everybody from the U.S. Olympic Committee to NBC to the International Olympic Committee. Our Olympics athletes are a powerful asset. They touch so many people."

Each of the eight athletes, with the exception of Mr. Isner, who is competing in the World Team Cup in Germany, was in Boston this week for photo shoots. Their likenesses will appear on a variety of packages, including an eight-pack of 90-calorie mini-cans and an eight-pack of 20-ounce bottles. Typically, Coca-Cola has selected six athletes and touted them as a six-pack. This is the first time the roster has been expanded to eight athletes. Ms. Gerson said the athletes will also appear on 1.25- and two-liter bottles, fridge packs and in-store displays. They'll also be used for public relations and in-store marketing efforts beginning in the first half of next year.

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