The organisers of London 2012 are selling it as a Games of equal halves, but sponsors that buy into the Paralympics spirit stand to achieve a higher brand performance than they would from mere event ’billboarding’.
In just over a year’s time, 4,200 of the best athletes in the world will converge on London for a sporting showcase that will be broadcast across 220 countries. Naturally, brands clamour to be associated with such a global event, but this isn’t a description of the 2012 Olympic Games. It is how marketers from Sainsbury’s, Channel 4 and EDF Energy among others view what could be described as a challenger brand – the Paralympic Games.
The Paralympics is often perceived as the less exciting cousin of the bigger games, but this view is changing. EDF Energy’s 2012 programme director, Gareth Wynn, claims that the London 2012 Paralympics represents “probably a more powerful and compelling opportunity than it ever has done before”.
And Sally Hancock, director of the London 2012 partnership at Lloyds TSB, calls the Paralympics “the biggest, most significant sporting event she has seen”.
“You don’t know what disability sport is going to be like until you are there watching it. I found it extraordinarily humbling – the incredible things the athletes had overcome was mind blowing. We have an opportunity to help educate the public about that,” says Hancock, a veteran of sports sponsorship since 1998.
London 2012 organiser Locog has for the first time created commercial opportunities specifically for the Paralympic Games. Such a move has grabbed the attention of astute marketers, who are realising that the smart money this year could be on creating links with the growing Paralympic brand.
Not only will sponsorship provide exposure to new markets and a good return on investment, it is hoped the British Paralympic team will match or exceed the haul of 102 medals it brought home from Beijing in 2008. At the Chinese games, the GB team came second in the Paralympic medal table.
Paralympic sponsor brands will be offered marketing options not available during the Olympic Games, including advertising space within venues, on athletes’ bibs and on specific signage within the park. The Paralympics even has its own commercial media partner, with Channel 4 being the only UK broadcaster to show the event.
Sainsbury’s has made the bold move of sponsoring just the Paralympics, rather than both events. It is the first time a grocer has been able to sponsor any part of the games due to longstanding agreements between the International Olympic Committee and its FMCG global sponsor brands.
Sainsbury’s signed up to sponsor the Paralympics last year, and head of sponsorship Jat Sahota acknowledges that it is “a more interesting commercial opportunity” that presents itself as a “no-brainer” to marketers (see Q&A, below). Sahota reckons the partnership is already resonating with the brand’s core audience of mothers.
He feels that the supermarket’s involvement in the 2012 Paralympics has prompted brands that are sponsoring both games to think more about how they can leverage their support of the Paralympics.
“We have found kindred spirits in BT, Deloitte, Cadbury, Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola. I’d like to think that Sainsbury’s sponsorship of London 2012 has led joint sponsors to give proper attention to the Paralympics,” he says.
Other brands have a more direct connection to the Paralympic Games. Prosthetics maker Otto Bock is the second Paralympic-only sponsor after Sainsbury’s. Managing director Phil Yates says he wants to raise awareness of what his business does and grow its reputation as an innovator. He is working on a roadshow to help explain disability to the general public and is in talks with other sponsor brands to set this up.
While Cadbury may seem to have a less obvious connection to elite sport, its general manager for London 2012, Norman Brodie, says its link is about being a British brand. In research done before the sponsorship deal was signed, consumers identified this as important. People, who said they wanted to feel closer to the event viewed the involvement positively.
Cadbury says its approach to both games is focusing on getting the public involved with sport. It works with three Paralympic and three Olympic athlete ambassadors. Mandip Sehmi competes in wheelchair rugby and took part in a match with the GB team near Liverpool Street Station in London earlier this year, which Brodie says helps to show people what Paralympic sport involves.
Brodie plans to use the athletes for internal communications as well as for part of its sponsorship of the forthcoming ITV2 game show Minute to Win It. But Brodie warns there is a balance between doing things to gain consumer attention and other activity that is equally valuable to make the partnership credible.
“We work with the British Paralympic Association, including supporting Paralympic Potential Days where people with a disability can try out different sports. Not all of the work is seen by consumers, in fact I think the bits not seen by them are more important,” he explains.
Tracking consumers’ perceptions of a brand is crucial for all sponsors, given the multimillion pound layouts they have made. P&G is closely monitoring consumers’ views of its 2012 sponsorship, tracking brand equity, likeability and trust among other measures.
P&G Olympics project director Nathan Homer says the games are particularly important as a springboard for its corporate brand awareness campaign. Its Paralympian ambassador is Sophia Warner, who, as a mother, will feature in its ’Proud sponsor of mums’ activity. Homer expects the overall investment in London 2012 to return triple its value. “We always viewed both games as essential to the story,” he says.
Lloyds TSB’s Hancock has identified clear commercial aims for the brand’s £80m sponsorship of both games – to gain extra business, increase brand consideration and motivate staff. It is also helping to develop future athletes through its Local Heroes programme and has just finished running National School Sport Week.
Hancock claims that two-thirds of the bank’s customers are spontaneously aware of its involvement with London 2012. But does she find its sponsorship spend hard to justify in light of having made 15,000 people redundant earlier this month? Her defence is that this is not additional to the brand’s marketing budget, but absorbed within it, and is therefore not a significant additional spend.
EDF, also a sponsor of both games, hopes to see its investment value doubled. It will track press coverage, media impact and consumer attitudes during the event. It also wants to track employees’ attitudes and will use its sponsorship of the Paralympics to develop its corporate responsibility purposes.
“There is a huge opportunity in Paralympic sport around diversity and inclusion,” says sponsorship director Wynn. “If a Paralympic athlete comes into the workplace and talks about their story, how they prepare for a competition and what they have had to do to reach an elite level, we find it transforms people’s view of disability.
“There are lots of human stories around the Paralympics. By partnering with the athletes you can start to achieve some powerful brand and marketing benefits.”
EDF plans to leverage its sponsorship of both games through corporate hospitality and PR activity, and Wynn has pinpointed a “real marketing opportunity” as emerging from the avenues exclusive to the Paralympics.
As well as being able to advertise in the stadia, brands will also be able to advertise their involvement on exclusive Paralympics broadcaster Channel 4. Locog’s commercial director Chris Townsend says this gives a marketer’s investment extra mileage. “The Paralympic rights offer significant value, particularly if you buy into all the opportunities available. If you bought the perimeter signage, the athletes’ bibs, sports signage and advertising slots on Channel 4 you could communicate very effectively and in an integrated way with consumers.”
But what does the Paralympics itself make of its new-found attention from brands? Jane Jones, communications director at the British Paralympic Association, is clear that brands should look beyond the disability factor.
“They have bought high performance sport, which is what enables the British public to connect with the games,” she says.
“Athletes with a disability don’t want sympathy or to be described as ’brave’ or ’courageous’, they want to be seen as athletes. The sponsors that have understood that are now getting a very rich experience.”
Channel 4 sponsorship controller Rob Ramsey echoes this, adding that brands must offer more than “just cash” and seek to “build true relationships”. “It is not like the Olympics where you spend loads of money and it is more about ’bill-boarding’,” he argues.
There may still be a job to do to add a further elite edge to the Paralympics image (see Changing perceptions of the Paralympic brand, below), but the 2008 Beijing Olympics saw the biggest Paralympic event yet, with athletes from 146 countries competing. Channel 4 is dubbing it “the biggest event” in the broadcaster’s 29-year history, and is aiming to double the BBC’s viewing figures for the 2008 Paralympics, which averaged 1.82 million.
No longer an afterthought for marketers, momentum is certainly growing behind the Paralympics. If your brand is on board, be prepared to do more than just be taken along for the ride. l
Jat Sahota: Head of sponsorship, Sainsbury’s
Sainsbury’s is the first retailer to sponsor an Olympic or Paralympic games, and is a sole sponsor of the 2012 Paralympics
Marketing Week (MW): Why sponsor the Paralympic Games?
Jat Sahota (JS): From a commercial point of view, it is more attractive in some ways because it is a challenger brand. The venues themselves can be branded whereas the Olympic ones can’t. Channel 4 will broadcast the games, so we see a more interesting commercial opportunity around the Paralympics. It is a bit of a no-brainer.
MW: It was reported last year that Coca-Cola clashed with Sainsbury’s over sponsorship rights because of the potential for Coke to be sold next to own-brand cola with both carrying Olympic branding. Can you comment on this?
JS: I can’t comment on Coca-Cola, but there is a long and complicated history around retailers entering into this space. This is the first time a retailer has become a Paralympic or Olympic sponsor and the first time anyone has become a sponsor of the Paralympics only. We respect the rights of longstanding worldwide partners. Games organiser Locog has been able to find a way to bring something new into the mix while respecting those rights.
We are reaching out to all the brands to find ways of working together. The beauty of these agreements is that they are well-crafted. You are in your own discrete sponsorship space and therefore can work with brands you don’t bump up against. For example, we will be working with Procter & Gamble at family festival Super Saturday. We don’t see the Paralympics as an opportunity ’instead’ of the Olympics.
MW: How do the Paralympic Games fit with Sainsbury’s as a brand?
JS: The Paralympics plays strongly to three of our five values. Being best for food and health because everyone should have access to a healthy lifestyle regardless of ability; making a positive difference to our communities because many Paralympic athletes are rooted in theirs; and being a great place to work – it is very exciting for our business to be able to involve our people in the games.
The Paralympic values of determination and equality connect with our organisation. There are amazing individual stories, but it is important not to overplay the adversity angle – they are ordinary people doing extraordinary things; they are elite athletes. There is a richness to those stories that I think the British public will respond to more than some of the Olympian stories.
MW: How will you measure the return on your investment?
JS: We have a number of different metrics. We will sell merchandise, for example, and for many customers it will be the first interaction they will have with London 2012, not just the Paralympics. Along with customer awareness, Sainsbury’s also has internal measures of employee engagement.
Aside from a set of numbers, the intangibles are important, such as how the sponsorship allows us to have a dialogue with our customers that is very different to our competitors as well as our people.
Our research shows that our sponsorship particularly resonates with families, especially mums. They recognise that this is a good thing for children to experience as it broadens their view of what life is about.
MW: How will you market your involvement with the Paralympics?
JS: We recently launched a series of short films about Paralympic athletes that are being shown on Channel 4.
You have to strike a balance so that such a colossal event doesn’t take over your entire conversation with people. At the end of the day, we still want people to come to us and buy our products. How you bring those two conversations together is quite complex but we are working on it.
MW: How will you maximise your sponsorship?
JS: We almost think of the Paralympics as a turbo charger for some of the things we already do, such as our Active Kids programme. We are running a challenge to get 1 million children to have a go at a Paralympic sport in the next school year. Schools can upload how they have performed on to a website and the best entries will win a valuable prize.
We think that every child should have a fair crack of the whip when it comes to sport and physical activity and we are in a position to make that happen.
The games by numbers
The first games for athletes with a disability, held in the UK at Stoke Mandeville, Buckinghamshire, when 130 athletes competed
- 2.2m – The number of BBC viewers for the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games opening ceremony
- 5m – The number of BBC viewers for the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games
- 75% – of tickets for the 2012 Paralympics cost £20 or under
- 28% – of tickets for the 2012 Olympics are £20 or under
- 4,200 – The estimated number of athletes who will compete in the 2012 Paralympic Games
- 12,000 – the estimated number of athletes who will compete in the 2012 Olympic Games
- 8.2m – How many watched Channel 4’s Paralympic programming
Sources: IPC, BPA, BBC, London2012.com, Channel 4
Changing perceptions of the Paralympic brand
There is still a job to do to change what people think of Paralympic sports. For Jane Jones, communications director at the British Paralympic Association, it is a marketing challenge.
“From a pure marketing perspective, the Paralympic Games is the biggest challenge but also the biggest opportunity. The Olympics is an established formula, but the Paralympic Games is growing and evolving,” says Jones.
Part of her role is to help sponsor brands understand what they are putting their money behind. She recalls one sponsor’s comment during the Beijing Games: “I have had an epiphany. I didn’t realise the quality of the sport was so exciting to watch, and that people turn up night after night to see it,” the corporate ticket holder told her.
However, Jones wants the British public as well as sponsor brands to see beyond an athlete’s disability. “Brands have bought high performance sport, which is what enables the British public to connect with the games. The sponsors that have understood that athletes don’t want sympathy are now getting a very rich experience.”
Paralympic broadcaster Channel 4 hopes to use sponsor brands to help change perceptions. It will be the only British channel to show the games, following what organiser Locog says was a “highly competitive” tender process.
“There has been a general lack of awareness and engagement with disabled people,” says Deborah Poulton, project manager and sports editor for Paralympics 2012 at Channel 4.
She adds that the broadcaster is running That Paralympic Show, which profiles the athletes in the run-up to 2012, as well as a 10-part documentary starting in September.
It seems that the channel is already changing people’s perceptions of disability, with 90% of people who watched Inside Incredible Athletes – its programme about sports people with disabilities – saying they would be more interested in watching the Paralympics next year, according to Channel 4’s research.
This programming has attracted bluechip partners, with Sainsbury’s and BT both signing multimillion pound deals with the broadcaster. Sainsbury’s 90-second films are currently being shown on Channel 4 in support of the Paralympics, and BT’s are to be broadcast later in the year. The telecoms brand also helped fund a cinema ad, made pro-bono by Team Saatchi, showing Paralympic sports people as the elite athletes they are.
Success in changing what people think will be seen in the press coverage of the games, according to Poulton. “We’ll know if we’ve had success if we see critical discussion of the results. For example, questioning whether there is a coaching problem, say, with the wheelchair basketball team.”
This is the first time that Paralympic and Olympic rights have been packaged together for domestic sponsors for any of the games. Games organiser Locog’s commercial director Chris Townsend says: “We have always positioned the Paralympic Games on an equal footing to the Olympic Games in presentations to potential sponsors – as an integrated games, of two halves. One of our objectives is to promote the Paralympics movement as much as we can.”