Marketers focus on athletes' personal stories for Winter Games

Brands are planning to talk about the challenges top athletes have had to overcome during the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, but avoid hot-button topics such as gay rights or the threat of terrorism.

Brands are planning to talk about the challenges top athletes have had to overcome during the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, but avoid hot-button topics such as gay rights or the threat of terrorism.

Organizations are using the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, as an opportunity to engage consumers through storytelling about the athletes and teams, as well as their own products.

Almond processing and marketing company Blue Diamond Growers, is emphasizing the challenges the athletes have had to overcome to make it to the games, says Al Greenlee, director of marketing for consumer products in North America at the company. Blue Diamond is sponsoring the US ski, snowboarding, and freeskiing teams.

Greenlee adds that after airing an ad during the 2012 Olympic Summer Games in London, Blue Diamond saw a 30% increase in sales in the following 16 weeks. So for the Winter Games, the company decided to develop an even stronger connection with the games and its athletes, both from a strategic and emotional standpoint.

Blue Diamond has been working with the US Ski and Snowboard Association's high-performance chief and dietician Allen Tran to develop high-protein almond-based recipes and food tips for the athletes.

To engage consumers, the brand posted recipes and suggestions on its social channels, along with video interviews of some Olympic athletes telling their stories. The company has also asked fans to root on the teams on Facebook, where between 8,000 and 10,000 posts have appeared to this point.

The Sochi Olympics is not short on controversial issues. Russia has been criticized for its anti-gay policies, and the threat of terrorism is also front of mind after a string of bombings in the country last month. Blue Diamond is “maintaining a positive attitude” and aligning itself with the athletes instead of focusing on political issues, explains Greenlee.

“The Olympics is about the athletes and the challenges they've had to overcome to get to this point, and hopefully, when everything is said and done, that is what people remember from the event, and everything else becomes a footnote,” he explains.

In addition to the athletes, Blue Diamond PR agency partner Access Communications is highlighting Tran's expertise for media and engagement opportunities, and it will continue to do so throughout the games, says Lyda Velez, VP at the firm.

Jerry Thomas, CEO of marketing research and analytical consulting firm Decision Analyst and a former executive at Kraft Foods, believes the “image of corruption” associated with Russia and the human rights and gay rights issues there should be cautioning points for brand marketers.

While the “Olympics themselves have a very positive brand image,” he says the political issues in Russia make it risky for brands who want to launch campaigns for the games.

BMW, a sponsor of Team USA since 2010, is focusing on providing athletes with tools to perform, and sharing the brand's innovation stories rather than politics, says Stacy Morris, marketing communications manager for the company.

For the last two years, BMW, which partners with the US bobsled, speed-skating, swimming, and track and field teams to help them with the technical challenges of their sports, has been developing a two-man bobsled to replace Team USA's 20-year-old model.

To raise the profile of the team and showcase its bobsled design, the brand debuted a documentary on NBC last week chronicling the process, adds Morris. BMW also created a 30-second TV ad about the bobsled.

The automaker always has a crisis communications plan in place for large-scale events, adds Morris, who will be on the ground in Sochi along with agency partner FleishmanHillard.

On social media, the company has asked fans to send photos of themselves on a toboggan or sled for a chance to win a trip to Utah to try the newly designed bobsled. Morris says the brand is also launching a social media contest to ask fans to guess the times of winning bobsleds during the games.

Procter & Gamble is continuing its Thank You, Mom campaign, part of the company's worldwide sponsorship with the International Olympic Committee.

“For the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, more than 15 of our brands around the world will be using Olympic athletes and hopefuls in advertising campaigns that link the Olympic Games ideals and equities with brand equities,” says Tressie Rose, associate director of communications at P&G, via email.

She declined to comment on how the threat of terrorism or Russia's stance on gay rights has affected the company's plans, if at all.

Lindsey Vonn's absence
Olympic and World Cup downhill skiing champion Lindsey Vonn pulled out of the games earlier this month due to a knee injury, leading some to question how brands and sponsors would replace her in their marketing efforts.

P&G, which includes Vonn in some ads and online videos for the Olympics, will continue to use the star athlete in its brand marketing, says Rose.

“We support [Vonn] through every step in her journey, and this too, is a part of her journey,” she adds.

NBC, which included Vonn in its marketing efforts, changed only about 5% of the campaign due to her injury, cutting three or four of the hundreds of spots it filmed featuring Winter Olympic athletes, says John Miller, CMO of NBCUniversal Television Group.

The broadcaster also altered a “significantly greater number of spots” that included passing moments of Vonn to maintain authenticity for the campaign, he adds.

“She is part of the story, but not the entire story,” says Miller. “To a large degree, the Olympics is a campaign that transcends any one athlete in any one sport.”

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