Olympics maintain unrivaled status in the branding arena

As the world's highest-profile sporting event, the Olympics' appeal still resonates with partners and sponsors.

With the Summer Games set to take place next year, Olympic fever will only intensify. And as the world's highest-profile sporting event, its appeal still resonates with partners and sponsors.

"The Olympics give us the kind of connections that reinforce loyalty and preference for our brands," says Petro Kacur, senior manager of worldwide public affairs and communications for Coca-Cola.

Of all brands, Coke maintains the longest Olympic association, starting at the 1928 Amsterdam Games. For London 2012, it will again be a huge supporter. For example, it has created, along with famous British photographer Rankin, a limited edition bottle in the UK [pictured].

Ten other sponsors join Coca-Cola to make up the TOP (The Olympic Partner) Program: computer maker Acer, IT services company Atos Origin, Panasonic, Samsung, Dow Chemical, General Electric, McDonald's, watch company Omega, Procter & Gamble, and Visa.

Under that tier are a plethora of levels of corporate support and a maze of rules and jurisdictions that dictate how companies may promote themselves under the Olympic umbrella. Brands may opt for worldwide exposure, go "local" by underwriting a country's Olympic efforts, or focus on a specific sports team or athlete representing a nation.

Positive thinking
One factor that continues to drive brand interest is that the Games' reach is long and positive, says Andy Sutherden, MD of sports marketing and sponsorship for Hill & Knowlton in London.

"When people get excited about the Olympics, it's more about humanitarian matters - values of friendship, solidarity, fair play, and the human endeavor - than about sports," he adds. "From a brand view, it remains one of the few global properties that attract male, female, young, old, and people from all walks of life."

Lindsey Hogan, director of communications for the US Olympic Committee, says she's seen how sponsors work the humanitarian angle into branding. They are "very strategic," she notes, about gearing their message to the everyday customer. For instance, they may use an athlete's journey to the Olympics to mirror a company's drive for excellence or focus on its altruistic causes.

"The Olympic movement provides such unique, limitless opportunities for sponsors to tailor their powerful value to the brand messaging," adds Hogan.

A new wrinkle expected during next year's Games is the pervasiveness of digital offerings, including social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. That will affect how, where, and when the Games and their sponsors will be seen the world over. And to the concern of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), all the auxiliary governing bodies, and the brands themselves, it opens the door wider for corporate guerilla tactics.

"Social media probably presents the single biggest challenge for rights' holders [official sponsors of the Games]," says Sutherden. "The more you try to control social media, the less control you have over it. It's a genuine threat."

Anticipated ambushing of sponsors by rivals at the Games has become such a problem that the UK passed a law to deal with offenders. Similar laws were put in place for the Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004) Olympics.

The IOC has also clamped down on non-sponsors and enforces stringent, complicated rules that spell out what type of sponsor can show its corporate face during which events.

Self responsibility
While companies appreciate the efforts of the IOC and other governing bodies to avert corporate sabotage, they realize the chief responsibility rests with them.

"We need to rise above the situation," says Glenn Williams, external relations manager for US operations at Procter & Gamble. "You must design your programs to be ambush-proof."

The numbers tell a powerful story about how companies view the Olympics. According to Sutherden, corporate sponsorship for the London Games sold so well that it has bested all previous Games. An IOC official confirmed that for PRWeek.

That record is the surest sign that brands have faith in the Olympic venue to deliver their messages to consumers.

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