5 lessons from London 2012

As the dust settles on the Olympic Games, Kate Magee asks what PR professionals can learn from the spectacle.

Usain Bolt on Houses of Parliament
Usain Bolt on Houses of Parliament

After the years of planning, months of stories and 17 days of media obsession, London 2012 has finally drawn to a close. So what can the PR industry learn from the biggest sporting event in the world?

1. Better education on the role of sponsors

LOCOG and the Olympic sponsors needed to do a better job of educating the public about how sponsors' money helped the Games. Instead, stories about the officious 'brand police' led to a series of ambush marketing stunts (see box, below) that raised a wry smile among the public.

'The word "sponsor" has become a bit dirty and that's not really fair,' says Jamie Wynne-Morgan, MD, M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment. 'The money does reach the athletes but this message often gets lost in the media that want more salacious stories. LOCOG should have done a much better job of explaining what sponsors bring to the event,' he adds.

LOCOG did try to strike back with ads on the tube network that thanked sponsors and explained there would be no Games without them. Coca-Cola's CEO Muhtar Kent also defended the role of sponsors in an interview in The Sunday Telegraph, but it seemed like too little, too late.

H+K Strategies' global practice director of sports marketing and sponsorship Andy Sutherden believes the event organisers should take the biggest responsibility for telling the sponsors' story. 'The public would be more attentive to messages from the rights holder, rather than the sponsors self-trumpeting about what they bring,' he says.

He believes that a robust education campaign from LOCOG would have silenced ambush marketing campaigns, because non-sponsor brands would have been cautious of provoking public backlash. 'Paddy Power is almost not paying to play. If we continue to feed ambushers the oxygen of publicity, it will eventually starve the mouths of hungry rights holders desperately trying to make commercial ends meet,' he says. 'Simply put, if you're more celebrated being unofficial, why spend millions on becoming official?'

The lesson for sponsors, says Cake's managing partner Jim Dowling, 'is to be clear on how they are making the Games better. They are not just writing a cheque, but improving the experience for the public.'

2. Sponsorship should not be a vanity exercise

Sponsorship is not an end in itself, but a platform from which to reach an audience. 'Businesses need to be clear on what role sponsorship has within their business, so it's not just a badging or vanity exercise,' says Dowling.

At a time when corporate spending is becoming increasingly scrutinised, proving the value of sponsorship has become even more critical. 'Measurement and evaluation has become more important than ever. We're staring down the barrel of a double-dip recession, so businesses need to have a good case study to show return on objectives,' says Sutherden. 'It's become a career risk for senior managers if the sponsorship brings no value to a business.'

Done well, sponsorship can help motivate staff and reach out to communities. For example, during the Torch Relay, Lloyds TSB invited staff from its retail branches to take part in the event and provided kits to decorate high street branches (see box, overleaf).

Businesses also need to find distinctive positioning, particularly when there are many other sponsors. Procter & Gamble, for example, focused on the 'mums' space, and signed up the mothers of Team GB athletes to speak to the media. This helped it to continue to tell stories while the athletes were busy competing.

But businesses also need to remember sponsorship can create reputational risks they need to be prepared to handle. EdenCancan's MD Nick Fulford points to a Giles Coren review in The Times that gave McDonald's zero out of ten for food: 'This review simply cannot be spun in any positive way. The truth is that this sort of negativity wouldn't have happened if McDonald's had not put itself so firmly in the centre of the Olympic spotlight.'

3. Act quickly

Dunblane postbox

Businesses that have reacted quickly to events have reaped benefits. A brilliant example came in the wake of the North Korean/South Korean flag mix-up at a women's football game. Specsavers ran an ad the next day with the two flags and 'should have gone to Specsavers' written in Korean. Likewise, Royal Mail's production of next-day stamps for any Team GB gold medallist has featured heavily in the media, with some gold medallists such as Bradley Wiggins being handed large versions of the stamp live on the BBC.

Propeller PR's CEO Martin Loat says: 'This is a great idea and has effectively provided product placement on the BBC for Royal Mail.' Royal Mail has also painted one letterbox gold in the home towns of gold medallists. 'This creates another story and local photo opportunities, positioning the brand at the heart of communities all over the UK during the Games,' he adds.

In order to make the most of these opportunities, PROs need to reduce the approval process at big brands. 'The bigger you are as an Olympic sponsor, the longer it takes for copy approval. You need to find a way of short-circuiting that approval process during Games time,' says H+K's Sutherden.

For example, after the flag mix-up Specsavers' creative team exchanged ideas overnight and presented the ad to the marketing team at 9am the morning after.

Specsavers' global marketing director Richard Holmes says: 'Fast reaction to relevant events is something that viewers, customers and store colleagues really enjoy. We try to keep comms lines short so we can react quickly.'

4. Manage expectations

From an early stage, Transport for London (TfL) and LOCOG were disseminating messages about how crowded the public transport system would be during the Games and heavily encouraged people to stay away.

The messages got through so effectively that London's transport network was actually uncharacteristically quiet, leading to complaints from some central London businesses that they lost trade.

'TfL and LOCOG painted a doomsday scenario, but that's led to the best public transport for a Games in history. It has been an undoubted success,' says Fast Track partner Steve Chisholm.

PROs may lean towards being endlessly positive, but being honest and managing expectations early can help reduce complaints later on. Although PrettyGreen's founder Mark Stringer warns: 'It's a very fine line between minimising the risk of disappointment and scaring people away.'


5. Goodwill rubs off

An event of this scale will always have some problems and people will always have strong opinions. In the run-up to the Games, there was much cynicism among the media and the public. But cynicism does not have to ruin success.

'Media, politicians and the public all lined up to criticise the Games, but that scepticism was swept to one side as soon as the opening ceremony started. It shows that if you are clear about your goals and are optimistic this can be contagious,' says Third City's co-founder Graz Belli.

Fulford agrees: 'Just like any big party, everyone gets nervous beforehand and this was obvious in the week leading up to the Games when the media were skittishly looking for negative stories. I thought the reaction of official spokespeople was much more measured and recognised that over the long term most of the public would have a positive memory.'


Chinese swimmer wearing Beats

Before the Games there was much tough talk of ambush marketing and how LOCOG would crack down on any chancers. But several stunts did make it through.

Bookmaker Paddy Power launched a poster campaign and national press ad campaign promoting its sponsorship of 'the largest athletics event in London this year', which referred to an egg and spoon race in a French village called London. LOCOG told ad agency JCDecaux to take the ad down, but eventually had to U-turn when lawyers became involved.

Off-licence chain Oddbins offered 30 per cent discount to its store visitors who wore non-sponsors' products, while Scottish brewer Brewdog invited the public to bring bottles of official sponsor Heineken into its bars to swap in order to receive a third off its product. Perhaps the most celebrated example was from headphone brand Beats, owned by the famous US rapper and producer Dr Dre. Retained agency Slam PR offered free pairs of headphones to athletes from 20 countries in their national colours. Athletes then wore them to shut out the noise and distraction of the crowd as they prepared for an event, meaning they have featured prominently on camera, particularly during swimming races.


Mark Foster

What benefits has Olympic sponsorship brought your business?

By delivering our vision, to bring the Games closer to people across the UK, a third of customers who are aware of our partnership and community activities are more likely to recommend us as a result. This advocacy leads to new customers joining us and existing customers doing more with us.   

We also knew that the 2012 Games would be good for our corporate business. For example, Lloyds made available £1 billion in lending for firms looking to win London 2012 business, and held over 500 business networking events.  

Just through supporting a third of businesses who have helped stage the Games, we have more than covered the cost of the partnership through new bank business generated.   

Our partnership also provides a great opportunity for staff and their families to take part in the Games: 64 per cent are now proud we’re a partner. 

What advice can you give other sponsors - such as those for Rio 2016?

Having a compelling and credible strategy and sticking to it has been critical. Less is more - we focused on a few activations such as National School Sport Week, Local Heroes, the Torch Relay and our Ticket Marketing Partnership to deliver our strategy, rather than go too broad.

Focusing on local communities and establishing and leveraging local media relationships has been essential to bring to life the personal and local stories from our activations. PR has been the most efficient channel for us throughout the five-and-a-half years of our partnership. Developing a strong relationship with the organising committee, building a strong team and bringing in specialists are essential.

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