Adjust or start from scratch? Tough decisions as brands reevaluate Olympic plans

It’s not as simple as just delaying campaigns for one year.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games postponed to next year because of the coronavirus pandemic, sponsors have no choice but to rethink every aspect of their activations for the world’s largest sporting event. 

And here’s another catch: Brands don’t want to invest much more money into their Olympic plans, given economic headwinds and logistical barriers with entire countries on lockdown, but PR pros say it is not feasible to simply shelve everything they had planned until 2021. 

“Most Olympic campaigns, especially from official sponsors, were already baked. They had their playbooks simmering,” says Shawn McBride, EVP of sports at Ketchum. “From TV and digital to social media, all the legs of the stool were developed and getting ready for launch, whether it was 100 days out to the games, which was April 15, a month out or early July.” 

The Games of the XXXII Olympiad were supposed to kick off July 24 in Tokyo, but in the wake of COVID-19’s global spread, the International Olympic Committee confirmed this week that they will be postponed until "no later than summer 2021.” The IOC said it made the decision “to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.” 

Few would argue that the IOC made the wrong call in postponing the Olympics, but the decision means marketers are left with tough decisions. Worldwide partners of the Olympic games in Japan include Airbnb, Alibaba Group, Bridgestone, Coca-Cola, Dow, GE, Intel, Procter & Gamble, Samsung, Toyota and Visa.

All of the sponsors are standing by the IOC’s decision. Some, such as Alibaba, referenced the Olympic spirit in the fight against COVID-19 in press statements. However, the reality is the unprecedented nature of the coronavirus pandemic is making planning especially difficult, and ultimately brands are on a timeline dictated by the virus itself. One major Olympic sponsor says that their company had developed contingency plans in the event of a postponement, but it is difficult to chart a course. 

“We are now evaluating each of them for best options on how to proceed,” says the executive. “Everything will continue to evolve and be dictated by the continuing COVID-19 situation and the ultimate new date of the games.”

Many marketers are starting with a few basic questions: Should they delay planned campaigns by a year or start from scratch? Turn live events into virtual events? And what about the business objectives tied to activations?

“Brands with Olympic ties are now undergoing a difficult evaluation process: What part of the plans can be shelved for a year, modified or adjusted once the worst of the pandemic passes? Or to go back completely to the drawing board,” says McBride. 

Chris Console, SVP at BCW Sports, says rather than ditch what’s in the can — a costly proposition  a lot of brands will “readjust, reimagine and reposition what they have already done.” 

“But that is difficult to do right here and now before we get through this time of everyone trying to flatten the curve and understanding how we come out on the other side,” he explains. “It is going to come down to each individual brand evaluating what was the message they were looking to convey and how it might resonate a year from now.”

Beyond rethinking the activations themselves, companies will also have to reevaluate the business objectives of each Olympic campaign. Mary Scott, who oversees global integrated comms at Edelman-owned United Entertainment Group, explains that sponsors had tied specific business or brand objectives to this year’s Olympics. Those goals, like in the case of a product launch, might not make sense more than a year from now. 

“It’s not quite so easy to simply push back a year, as many factors will come into play, not the least of which is the impact of the current pandemic as well as aligning with 2021 brand and business objectives,” she says. 

However, there is a silver lining for brands with the delay. “This new date provides an interesting opportunity,” adds Scott. “The runway to the Olympics is longer; the attention will be greater; and this should allow marketers to think about how they can leverage the sponsorship not only in 2021 but in 2020, as well.” 

Brands and their agency partners will also have to consider another big question: Will live events again be acceptable in 2021? With social distancing the new normal, activations like Olympic lounges, outdoor events and parties “will either remain canceled or repurposed in a virtual or digital context,” Scott adds, noting that UEG is talking with clients about virtual platforms in place of on-site activations. 

“There is time to reconsider event-based components once it’s declared safe to do so,” she adds. 

Analysts are also predicting a dent to the bottom lines of agencies expected to have staff on the ground for clients in Tokyo. Former Pivotal Research Group analyst Brian Wieser, now global president of business intelligence for WPP media agency GroupM, said in a post this month that “[how] much a recession may impact advertising spending in any given country is difficult to anticipate,” but said “it is highly likely that the impact will be negative.” 

Another analyst predicted that the impact will be “concentrated in Japanese agencies and firms that specialize in sports marketing and associated fields.” 

“I think others will get a hit but it will be less so, dwarfed by the impact of everything else and also the time zone for the games is not ideal for Europe and the U.S. anyway,” the analyst said, adding that agencies could get a boost from political spending this election year. 

A hope for agencies is that clients recognize that audiences want uplifting storytelling about overcoming the odds and working toward a common goal, which could lead to additional work, whether through adapting previous plans or building new ones. Sponsors that reimagine their programs for the post-pandemic environment while staying true to their brand and value propositions will be the ones that stand out next year, says Dianna Kraus, global MD of FleishmanHillard Sports. 

“It would be a tremendous missed opportunity if an Olympic sponsor simply shelved its 2020 plan and waited to roll it back out again in 2021,” she says. “[Next year] will require a new playbook, but sponsors would do well to remember why they partnered with the Olympic movement in the first place: It is a magical celebration of human achievement, friendship and global solidarity. These ideals create powerful brand opportunities and, as it turns out, they’re also what the world needs right now as we try to get through COVID-19.”

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