Ancient Olympic athletes (Getty, taken from Olympics.org)

Branding lessons from the Olympic Games

How the Olympics wrote the book on branding and why you, as a brand marketer, should take notes.

It has been 120 years since a funny little French man, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, successfully revived the Olympic Games of the Greek antiquity. What, if anything, is left of his initial vision and what does this tell us about modern branding and marketing?

As we gather around the proverbial multi- screen experience to enjoy the Olympic Games in Rio this summer, I will likely be watching with a different lens then most viewers — that of a brand marketer.

The Olympic Games have survived two world wars, two great depressions, many changes in mass media (including the invention of the television and the digital revolution) and have even managed to continue to attract new generations (including Millennials!).

To understand the evolutional enormity the Olympic Games and brand have experienced, we must first compare the inaugural modern games in 1896 in Athens with the thirty-first Games this summer in Rio.

The Rio Games vs. The Athens Games (by Struck designer Nadya Bratt)

To begin with, the sheer cost of the games is mind boggling. This year alone the games are projected to cost $11.5 billion. Most of it will be bankrolled by Broadcast and Sponsorship revenues with a mere 5% coming from ticket sales (this year’s Games already outpace the 2012 Games in terms of sponsorships). A full 2 years before the opening ceremony of the Athen Games in 1894, the Greek organizing committee reported that the games would cost three times the original budget estimated by Baron Pierre de Coubertin — about $3.7M drachma at the time.

I do not think that Baron Pierre de Coubertin could have foretold the success of his creation, but he did understand the key to the Game’s success: Sporting events are a unifying and universal force that have the potential to bring peace. Coubertin had a vision that the athletes of the world would peacefully compete against one another — and, to an extent, he was right.

There is something amazing (in the true sense of the word) about seeing athletes march into the stadium during the opening ceremony and watching them compete. Some of the most poignant iconic moments of the Olympics are woven into the texture of the history of the 20th century: Jesse Owen’s triumph at the 1936 Games under the glare of Hitler, the tragic slaying of the Israeli team by terrorist at the Munich Games in 1972 and the raising of the Black Power Salute by African American athletes during the 1968 Games in Mexico City.

The Olympic games have become the only and true global gathering of the world. They transcend politics, religion and economic realities unlike any other worldwide event. In spite of the enormous cost, the dope scandals, the fear of the Zica virus, we keep on returning to watch.

The 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens (Olympics.org)

This realization brings up many questions: How have they done it? What elements of the brands have helped them remain relevant today?

The Olympics brand upholds six core foundational aspects that have allowed it to endure:

  1. It’s cause-based: Although the Games generate billions in revenue for each Games they are still, at heart, a cause base brand (organizing committees maintain a non-profit status). The power of Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s vision endures: we watch the Games to see a peaceful gathering of the world’s most accomplished athletes. Anyone who has been in an Olympic stadium during an opening or closing ceremony will tell you that the Parade of Nations, in which every athletes parades marches through the stadium, is one of the most thrilling moment of the Games. The athletes themselves are largely unknown until they compete in the Olympics, and although they no longer need to be amateurs to compete (up until the early 90s Olympic athletes were required to have an amateur status), some of that original idealism remains.
  2. It has an entirely unique and differentiated value proposition: No other event gathers world athletes from so many different disciplines. Sure there are World Cup events that perhaps approach a smiliar level of global footprint (such as soccer). But these include only one sport. There is true beauty in seeing the human body perform at its peak across so many different athletic disciplines.
  3. It’s story-based: Beyond the medal count and the national pride, the athlete’s personal stories are what truly get to us. What they endured, how they win and how they lose keeps us coming back for more. In addition, the stories of the Games themselves are enmeshed with big events in the history of the 20th and 21st centuries in an almost prophetic way: Paris 1920 (Belle Epoque), Berlin 1936 (World War Two), London 1948 (rebirth), etc. And finally, the stories from each host country makes the Games even more unique. Spectators and viewers dive into the host nation’s history for a trip through the country’s landscape and culture.
  4. It’s Glocal — both global and local at the same time. The Olympics is first and foremost a global brand. It is not tied to one part of the world, and certainly every nation in the world makes an effort to send a team. But, the genius of the Games is that it succeeds at being simultaneously a global brand while feeling local. This year we will be watching the Rio Olympic Games. In two years we will be watching the Winter Games in Pyong Chang. We never tire of discovering local communities and their people and culture. And, for those watching it from their home turf, it too is a local and communal experience, as they share the viewing with friends and family.
  5. It’s rooted in antiquity (and beyond). There is something deeply moving about the fact that the Olympic Games originated in Ancient Greece and that the modern games replicate many of the rituals that were present then. For instance, the lighting of the Olympic Torch replicates the ancient Greek ceremony involving a female-only priestess (reminding us that women were once considered deeply spiritual and powerful). The modern world craves meaning and the Olympic Games offer a connective thread. This thread extends not only between nations, but also through our common past. The branding elements strive to represent both the host country and the most iconic elements of the Games of the past. The cauldron, the five rings and the pictograms evoking primitive art that harkens back to the birth of humanity. While not all brands can claim such deep roots, they should take heed that any connectivity to the past will empower and legitimize their brand. History matters more now to modern brands then ever.
  6. It’s fiercely defended: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) wrote the book on trademarking and patenting (well actually Coca Cola did: ironically Coca Cola is the longest and oldest sponsor of the Games since 1928 in Amsterdam). While this may seem like a footnote in the entire story, there is enormous power in fiercely defending and owning a brand. From the term Olympic, to the five interlocking rings, the IOC was able to not only defend, but also monetize the brands unlike any other — including the use of “Olympic” and other trademarks, such as “Go for the gold” and #TeamUSA by non-sponsor companies. The very fact that 95% of the Rio Games revenue comes from broadcast, sponsorship and licensing is a testament to the IOC’s success in defending their brand. Note: Even just recently, a brand of fine meats named Olympic Provisions out of Portland was painfully reminded of this fact.
  7. It’s experiential: Having an event at the center of your brand certainly helps define the consumer experience. Though the event lies at the core of the Games, the reality is that one does not need to attend the actual Games for the brand experience. The event can be experienced in a very authentic way through the broadcast and the “real world” aspects make it mesmerizing: real people, a real city and real competition. The challenge for any digital brand today is to find ways to create an experience for their customers, whether that’s through packaging, event activations or sponsoring “real” brands.

While most brand marketers do not have the luxury of such a powerful and timeless product, there are still plenty of lessons that can be emulated. The Olympic Games provide a good lesson for brands and how to connect emotionally with, and build, a core audience. Even after 120 years, the Olympic games remain one of the only and true global gatherings of the world. The IOC’s challenge going forward will be to continue to adapt with the digitized world in a way that provides fans with the space to participate in their love of the brand, the foundational elements of the Olympic brand have the power to propel the Games forward for decades to come.

As Baron Pierre de Coubertin said: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part; the essential thing in life is not conquering but fighting well.”


Pauline Ploquin is Chief Relationship Officer at Struck. You can also find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.


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