Marketing opportunities for 2004 Olympics proved solid

Despite early concerns regarding preparations, the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, have served as a prime branding opportunity for nations and firms.

Despite early concerns regarding preparations, the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, have served as a prime branding opportunity for nations and firms.

Something amazing happened on August 13, when, at the opening ceremonies of the 2004 Olympics, Athens 2004 president Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki welcomed the world to the Greek capital, declaring to a live audience of 72,000 and a TV audience estimated at 4 billion, "Greece is going to fire the world's imagination."

Against the odds, it did.

Suddenly, the intense skepticism that had built up in the media for months - about Athens' preparedness, security, etc. - transformed into a sense that one of the most anticipated and doubted Olympic spectacles in history might just turn out to be one of the best.

Perceptions were shifted dramatically. It was as if the world had agreed that the moral of the 2004 Athens Olympic story would not be the familiar caution coined by 6th century BC Greek fable writer Aesop - "Look before you leap" - but rather his lesser-known enjoinder: "The greater the risk, the greater the honor" (an ancient version of Nike's "Just do it"?).

Or perhaps: "He laughs best who laughs last."

Another bout of skepticism quickly ensued over attendance and TV viewership - but once again the Olympics appear to have met, even exceeded, expectations. Early coverage focused on empty arena seats, raising questions about whether TV viewers would in turn tune out.

As of press time, Athens 2004 was close to its sales target of 3.4 million tickets. Attendance was lower than in the last (pre-recession, pre-9/11) Summer Games, but comparable to that of Barcelona in 1992 (3 million) and Seoul in 1988 (3.3 million).

Even more important, TV viewership was up 18% compared to Sydney, according to NBC. That increase is striking. Since 2000, the challenges to securing a mass TV audience have become far more onerous, but Athens delivered an even more massive mind share.

"Rebranding" Greece

One can still argue that the Olympics continue to be among the most prominent platforms for branding on the planet. Despite the challenges and expense of organizing, hosting, securing, and sponsoring the Olympics in an increasingly complex, post-9/11 world, the Games remain a powerful way for brands to make broad connections with deep impact.

Arguably, the brand that had the most at stake in this summer's Olympics was the country of Greece itself. Hosting the Olympics can help countries boost tourism, attract investment, and create new infrastructure. With 11 million people, Greece is the smallest country to host the Games since Finland in 1952. Since 2000, its economy has expanded by 4% annually, with the Olympics contributing an estimated quarter of that total.

Perhaps the most valuable and enduring benefit for Greece, however, is the opportunity the Olympics provided to influence perceptions and redress negative stereotypes. Hosting the Games gave Greece a priceless, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to "re-brand" itself on a world stage.

When construction delays began to cause concerns about Athens' readiness as far back as 2000, it looked as if the old stereotype of Greece as a nation of friendly procrastinators might be reinforced. Particularly following 9/11 and the scrutiny on Athens as the Summer Games' first host following the attacks, the skepticism escalated, reaching a fever pitch in the months before the opening.

(Indeed, a Turnkey Sports Poll of 400 senior-level sports-industry executives in the US conducted in July found the biggest perceived threats to a successful summer Olympics in Athens were terrorism [55.7%] and unfinished facilities [24%], far outpacing concerns about scandals relating to performance-enhancing drugs [3.6%].)

The opening ceremonies (which were produced by our firm) defied stereotypes and broadcasted a positive image of Greece to a global TV audience, merging pride in the country's ancient past with a new image of its contemporary place in the world. According to NBC, which holds US broadcast rights, they were the most-watched non-US opening ceremonies, with a 14.6 rating/27 household share. It is no exaggeration to say that the ceremonies - which in 2000 were the most-watched event during the entire two-week Sydney Games - are the biggest three-hour ad a country could have.

Opportunities for sponsors

For brands involved as Olympic sponsors, Athens dramatized both new challenges and new opportunities. Despite the initial skepticism, sponsoring brands still leveraged their presence in Athens. These included experiential environments staged at venues like the Athens Olympic Sports Complex by sponsors like Kodak (whose Olympic ties date back to the first modern Games in 1896) and Samsung (which did a particularly effective job of integrating its brand presence into interactive experiences, as well as onto bus wraps, airport luggage carts, and other signage).

The Olympics also continue to offer a premium platform to assert leadership. According to many studies, consumers automatically associate Olympic sponsors with category leadership. For example, a Dynamic Logic survey found that half of US consumers thought Olympic sponsors were industry leaders.

In addition to that obviously positive, high-level association, several companies also continue to demonstrate how Olympic sponsorships can be leveraged to generate goodwill more locally.

For example, Bank of America, a sponsor of the US Olympic team, created a host and travel program, Hometown Hopefuls, for families of US Olympic athletes. The program put a human face on its sponsorship activities in local US market events, as well as in ads shown during the Games. Because most banking decisions are made by consumers at the local level, such grassroots appeal can be valuable.

Additionally, The Home Depot, which has sponsored Olympic teams in the US, Canada, and Puerto Rico, continues to extend the positive impact of its 12-year-old program to provide employment in Home Depot stores for Olympic hopefuls, the Olympic Job Opportunity Program, both through ads and promotions.

Perhaps the most dramatic branding opportunity to emerge this year was Athens 2004's reinvention of the traditional torch relay, which could become a permanent fixture of the Games.

Always a powerful platform for brands to generate media coverage, the relay is traditionally a journey from Olympia, the ancient home of the Olympics, to the host city. Because that journey would have lasted just five hours, Athens 2004 reinvented the torch relay, presented by sponsors Coca-Cola and Samsung, as the first one to travel the globe, lasting 78 days and covering a distance of more than 78,000 kilometers. Almost 4,000 torchbearers carried the flame to previous host cities, and visited Africa and Latin America for the first time, and 260 million people saw the flame during the relay.

Experiences like this exemplified the enduring appeal of the Olympics. So did the fact that Athens brought together more athletes from more nations than ever before. The last time the Games were held in Athens, in 1896, 245 athletes from 14 nations competed. This year, 10,000 athletes from 202 countries did so. As always, nations competed to bring home the most medals. But the transcending of national prejudices and the spirit of global unity was more impressive. Who could forget the cheers that greeted the teams from Afghanistan and Iraq?

Ironically, as world events increasingly put external pressures on the Olympics in the form of elevated concerns about security, politics have, arguably, increasingly receded from the Games themselves. The back-to-back boycotts of the Cold War, in Moscow (1980) and Los Angeles (1984), are unthinkable today, despite real tensions between nations. At the Olympics, at least, athletic competition and the spirit of unity trump politics.

Athens proved that the Olympic brand is strong - and so are the branding opportunities it offers its partners.

  • Josh McCall is CEO of the experiential marketing agency Jack Morton Worldwide, which produced the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympics on August 13 and 29, 2004.

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