Can The Olympic Gamble Pay Off Without The Games?

Visa, Wheaties, BP, Zico, BMW,  Polo Ralph Lauren, Subway,  Kelloggs, A T and T,  McDonalds, Kraft. They are just some of the brands that have been part of perhaps the largest and most diverse pre-Olympic athlete branding and outreach campaigns ever. Anyone associated with London 2012, officially or in a non-official capacity, has found the time to use traditional and social media, grassroots marketing efforts and charity elements to extend the Olympic and Paralympic athlete window  year or even 18 months in advance of London, making sure that the halo effect from potential Olympic glory starts even before, well, there is a halo to grab on to.

Many brands in doing such a wide reach prior not just to the games, but prior to qualifying, ran a risk. Qualifying is very much about the human element, and even top athletes are subject to bad days, bad calls, bad injuries and bad judgment. For the brands mentioned above, they fell at least partially victim to no less than three high profile athletes, Nastia Liukin, Bryan Clay and Shawn Johnson, not qualifying for London 2012. By not qualifying, the equity and the halo evaporated in some ways before the Games even began. A risk? For sure, and in the past it was perhaps a gamble that could have been devastating. But in the long term multi-faceted branding world of today, the loss for the brands is probably less than it ever has been before, especially in the case of these three.

Why? Few reasons. First, all three were already well spoken, well-conditioned athletes who had already tasted Olympic glory in the past.  They were not wild shots in the dark for brands looking for one grab at the gold ring. They were longer term, multi-level engagements. This was not the Dan vs. Dave Reebok campaign that leading into the 1992 Barcelona Games that fizzled before it started because one of the two, Dan O’Brien, failed to make the Olympic team. That equity, without social and digital media blew up for Reebok before it ever had a chance to play out in the decathlon.

Perhaps from that, many brands today have a wide swath of athletes involved in their campaigns. They come from varied backgrounds and give brands who are investing in the Olympic experience more than one chance at having an athlete break through during London. They have diverse stories and they all have given their buy-in to the brand programs fully knowing that the success is based more on the experience and the engagement as much as it is on bringing home the gold. So in the past, Clay missing in the decathlon or Luikin or Johnson missing in gymnastics meant a dead end. Now the three can still engage in programs through hospitality, special appearances, media activities (which they may not have done for the brand if they were competing) as well as in longer term equity plans that tell their stories, now both of glory and of disappointment perhaps, to an even broader audience.

This is not to say that those who have invested in these high profile athletes, from a TV partner like NBC to the Federations to charities to the brands themselves get away unscathed. The benefit of going to London as anticipated for sure would brighten the partnership and sweeten the deal. However the beauty of the Olympics is in the depth of story, and the stories are plentiful again going into London.

So while the brands that took the calculated risk with these three stars gambled and lost some, it certainly is not a death knell that non-competition would have been in years past. It is more of a time of adjustment and new engagement; perhaps with even more equity and less of a dollar spend than if the gold medal came in London.

It is not easy to predict the winners, but by spreading the wealth and investing for the long term, Clay, Liukin and Johnson can still help deliver some brand gold for their partners, in today’s environment of engagement even more than ever before.