Coke is first off blocks in the big race

Coke’s sponsorship of the Olympics in Atlanta leaves other companies’ activities in the shade. Its $62m spend focuses solely on the brand, tying it in to specific events. And, as Alan Mitchell reports, the International Olympic Committee has even started to use the company’s involvement to promote the games

Coke’s global campaign spans 135 countries and dwarfs all-comers, with 88 separate commercials

When Coca-Cola chief executive Roberto Goizueta pinpointed his main competitor as water some observers thought he was indulging in a little PR-induced tub thumping to make competitors like Pepsi and own-label producer Cott seem small.

But in the sweltering heat of Atlanta it is only too easy to see what Goizueta is getting at. At any Olympic venue you are unlikely to be more than 20 paces from a Coca-Cola company outlet. The odds are that in the Olympic battle between the tap and Coca-Cola for “share of gullet”, Coke is poised to win a gold medal.

Goizueta’s startling redefinition of market share is just one of a number of changes sweeping Coke’s marketing. It follows company president Doug Ivester’s decision to “challenge every assumption and preconceived notion about our brands” to make Coke “the world’s premier consumer marketing company”.

The first dramatic result came three years ago with Coke’s decision to shed its decades-old “one sight, one sound” advertising strategy. Americana is now firmly in the background, upstaged by anything that connects with local consumers. A few years back, for example, Diet Coke’s recent Noel Cowardesque Wimbledon “just for the sake of it” commercial would have been unthinkable.

But the Olympics give the best indication of Coke’s trajectory. Take advertising. It has trumped other Olympic sponsors in two ways. First, its global campaign, which spans 135 countries, simply dwarfs all-comers. Second, at the epicentre of the Olympic marketing battle, the US, Coke withdrew all its Olympic ads as soon as its peers started to unleash theirs. Instead, its $62m (41m) Olympic advertising blast focuses resolutely on the brand itself.

And what a blast. While other advertisers repeat their Olympic message, ad nauseam, Coke is screening 88 separate commercials. Over the 17 days of the Olympics not one of them will be repeated. Each day the chosen ads focus on a different Coke brand attribute such as “take a break”, “family”, “ice-cold” or “the real thing”.

Each ad does it in its own way. The ads come from a dozen agencies, including Leo Burnett’s Taiwan office, McCann-Erickson’s Brazil office and London’s Bartle Bogle Hegarty. And each spot has been carefully bought to target that programme’s specific audience.

Seventeen of them – one for each day – are being made during the Olympics to reflect the theme of the day and latest news. “Just in time advertising” is what marketing spokesman Bob Bertini calls it. Net result? Coke will be the only brand to break through the Olympic marketing clutter.

But advertising is only one part of Coke’s sponsorship activity. While other companies are satisfied to generate positive associations, heightened awareness and popular promotions, Coke sees them as just the beginning.

Its aim is to drive volume by moving beyond two dimensional advertising to what it calls “360 marketing”: from sight and sound to touch and feel; from watching to experiencing. For instance, Coke plastered the 1992 Barcelona Olympics with 1,100 posters. Atlanta has only 73. Why? Because, says Stu Cross, Coke’s director worldwide sports, the money is better invested making Coke “a part of the activities”. This is done through spectaculars like the Coca-Cola Olympic City (where consumers can see dance and music shows, Olympic memorabilia, and test their sporting skills); a Coke-organised Olympic folk art exhibition; or through “fan refreshers” – extraordinary mega-vending machines that act as magnets for wilting passers-by by showering them with cool, refreshing mist.

Coke can afford to eschew traditional Olympic ads precisely because it’s been doing this sort of sponsorship for months. Its biggest stunt was the Olympic torch relay. Coke didn’t just advertise at it. It effectively organised it on behalf of the International Olympic Committee.

The company recruited the 12,000 torch-bearers – “heroes” chosen by local communities, not stars. And it bussed an estimated 40 million citizens to the relay along the 5,000-mile route to Atlanta. “They watched, they responded, they cried, they touched. For many, it was the biggest thing ever to come through their town,” enthuses Cross. “And 90 per cent realised Coke had brought it to them.”

Critically, when Coke marketers researched each town afterwards, they didn’t just ask who organised it but “who were you standing next to?” And “what did the torch-bearer look like?” Cross adds: “When they can remember things like that you know you have burned a memory into their brain.”

The debate around Olympic sponsorship focuses on three questions. Is all this commercialism good for sport? Are mega-buck sponsorship investments worth it? And are big corporations pricing each other out of the market in sponsorship bidding wars?

The jury is still out on the first question. It’s clear, for instance, that those steeped in Coke culture simply cannot see how Orwellian their activities sometimes appear to outsiders. But on the other two questions the answer is crystal clear. Coke’s current US volume growth of seven per cent is five times that of the soft drinks market as a whole. For a brand of Coke’s size “that’s a coup”, smirks Cross.

Second, Coke’s approach to sponsorship is, if anything, creating lower marketing costs per sale. For a start, most of its Olympic marketing is integrated with, and funded out of, its existing budgets. Second, it’s using its aggressive approach to sponsorship to reduce the price it pays.

Coke uses the Olympics to market itself, but the International Olympic Committee has begun using Coke to market the games. Initiatives like the torch relay probably did more to recruit American hearts and minds to the Olympics than anything else. “We have become much more valuable to rights holders because of the way we activate our sponsorship,” says Cross. “Sponsors want to tap our expertise. And because of that we have been able to reduce our sponsorship obligations by leveraging our activities.”

Goizueta hopes that soon his company’s consumer marketing leadership will be “undeniable”. Judging from its performance at the Olympics, if other marketers want to qualify for world-class status they’ll have to start training – and thinking – a lot harder.

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