Sponsors who truly practice what they preach when it comes to integrated communications are now less than 100 days away from an event that could deliver a ‘personal best’ in terms of employee pride, positive brand engagement, customer loyalty, and ultimately sales.
True, the communications context for companies planning to activate around the XXXI Olympiad in Rio this summer is daunting. A host of issues threaten brand reputation at every turn, from Zika virus to impeachment proceedings hanging over President Dilma Rousseff. Alongside crisis management, consider what it will take to keep up with the turbo-charged world of digital communications; or the creativity required to overcome sponsor clutter; satisfying internal stakeholders; rights holder and event management; public affairs; CRM; CSR; and a diverse sector knowledge from healthcare to transport to FMCG? Wow, it’s complicated.
Maybe that’s why some describe modern day sports marketers as ‘corporate decathletes;’ Multi-disciplined, high performers over a sustained period, with the ability to quickly switch focus from one thing to another. Rio will test each one of these attributes more than ever before. Those on-track for a ‘personal best’ will have already embraced the fact that complexity often brings opportunity.
Explore one such opportunity that is complex by re-design: the IOC’s softening of Rule 40, the infamous regulation enshrined in the Olympic Charter that prevented athletes taking part in brand marketing activity for non-Olympic sponsors during Games Time. It’s the rule that permitted Jess Ennis, for example, promoting P&G’s brilliant Thank You, Mom campaign four years ago but prohibited Aviva, one of Jess’ long-term sponsors at the time, from activating its association in the days leading up to, during and immediately after London 2012. Athlete anxiety was best expressed by The New York Times when it summarized Rule 40 as "rules that limit their ability to promote the companies that help them pay their bills."
All of that has now changed. The IOC listened to athlete representations and now, as long as they act within the parameters and approvals of the relevant National Olympic Committee, non-Olympic sponsors can activate their ambassador partnerships during Games time. Different rules apply in different markets, but in general terms, brands will have had to have run their campaign continuously before March 27, 2016 and gained approval from the relevant National Olympic Committee. Quite rightly, the IOC and local organisers strictly govern the terms upon which brand X can associate with athlete Y, but the headline remains: Recent amendments to Rule 40 will result in many more brands legally activating campaigns from Rio 2016 onward. In the future, this could have an important impact on the sports marketing industry.
Top of that list will be the inevitable trade-up in creativity. It’s often the consequence of any market characterised by increased competition. For Rio, that means more brands making lawful associations via ambassador marketing campaigns. For those campaigns to resonate, they must be distinctive and memorable. Associations that authentically unite athlete and sponsor will rise above the clutter.
On the other hand, for official partners (for whom Rule 40 does not necessarily apply), Rio will become known as the first real ‘real-time’ Olympics. These brands will now have the ability to tell their story unedited and instant. This will be the Games playing out on social as it happens, often via athlete ambassadors, who will enhance the fan experience by live streaming outside of Olympic venues with the likes of Periscope, Facebook Live, and the off-the-cuff publishing of Snapchat. Social media training for athletes will become a contractual obligation because real time exposure also brings real time risk.
Rick Burton, former CMO for the U.S. Olympic Committee, believes the IOC has brewed up a sponsor storm, stating: "This introduces a dangerous minefield for the IOC. It may be cheeky to write ‘may the best marketer win,’ but one thing is for sure, Rule 40 will make things feisty."
Very true. But in the world of our ‘corporate decathlete,’ sponsors only see opportunity and their eye is squarely on a personal best at Rio 2016.
Andy Sutherden is Global Head of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship at Hill+Knowlton Strategies.