Mark Ritson: Olympic sponsors stuck in the slow lane

Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport, for those who have not passed through it recently, has become completely Olympified. I just invented that verb and, until the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Locog) brand police make Marketing Week redact, I intend to get my money’s worth out of it. To Olympify something means to overtly and excessively promote the Olympics to the detriment of all and sundry.



The Olympification (it’s also a noun) of T5 begins in the lifts taking you up to departures. BP, that stalwart of reputational excellence, has plastered impressive shots of athletes next to big images of the BP Helios logo and the 2012 London brand identity inside all the lifts.

On exiting the lifts, your eyes are drawn to giant LED screens showing Samsung’s latest gizmo complete with London 2012 emblazoned on it. Turning your eyes towards check-in serves no purpose either because above all the gates in T5 there are gigantic widescreens that proclaim British Airways’ status as the official airline of the Olympics.

The horror continues in travel retail. An orgy of Union flags wave at you from almost every corner of T5. A multitude of brands from WH Smith (inexplicably selling books with Union flag promotional material) to Swiss watch brands and make-up counters have all suddenly and overtly become British. In perhaps the oddest and most troubling example of Olympification the (very French) champagne brand Lanson has produced a Union flag-covered bottle and was recently caught retailing it under a “best of British” banner.

And all this makes you wonder, is it really worth it? Andy Fennell, the chief marketing officer from Diageo, clearly does not think so. He told audiences at Cannes Lions Festival last month that Diageo would not consider the Olympics because it was too expensive and very hard to get a decent return on investment.

He has a point. Break with the dangerous and always incorrect assumption that when marketers spend millions of pounds on something they must know what they are doing, and the Olympic sponsorship strategy looks ropey to say the least.

For starters, the major sponsors are pretty much forced to follow the same familiar footprints as all the other sponsors of the event. There is inevitably going to be shots of athletes getting all sweaty and inspired and then the obligatory London 2012 logo and that of the sponsor. It’s not exactly differentiating if everyone is doing it. In fact – and whisper this one quietly in case the brand police hear you – all the sponsors’ material looks pretty much the same.

‘In the generic and unclear world of Olympic sponsors, getting five out of ten is gold medal stuff’

To add to this generic creative, there is also the constraint of timing. Sponsors have to focus the major part of their media spend in the run-up to the event and the intense 17-day period when it occurs. So not only do your ads look like every other sponsor, they are running at the same time and in the same places too.

And finally there is the tricky issue of legitimacy. Most of these companies, let’s be honest, have no legitimate right to be associated with the Olympics. Despite Lord Coe’s noble attempts to portray his sponsors as genuine partners of the Games, the British people aren’t moronic enough to buy that one. No matter how much money the likes of McDonald’s, Coca-Cola or Cadbury, in particular, spend trying to link their products with the performance of athletes, there is no legitimacy other than a financial one.

Multiply the lack of legitimacy, the generic creatives of the campaigns and the fact that the sponsors are targeting the same people at the same time using the same single event and you get only one thing: clutter.

While most brands are doing everything they can to avoid being lost in the clutter of modern marketing communications, the sponsors of 2012 are creating their own little cluttered environment and spending millions to achieve it.

The data proves there is very little differentiation in being an Olympic sponsor. Based on aided recall – which is a much more generous metric than unaided recall – Coca-Cola is the most successful sponsor of London 2012 because half the British population now recognises it as an official sponsor of the Games. You might need to be a world beater to win on the track, but in the generic and unclear world of Olympic sponsors getting five out of ten is gold medal stuff.

Poor old Adidas has only managed to get 25% aided recall so far, according to Opinium research, while just 10% of the population recognises BP’s association with the Games. Meanwhile, brands like MasterCard and British Gas, which don’t sponsor the Olympics and which are precluded by Locog from even hinting at any link to the Games, are recording aided recall scores of 22% and 20% respectively – conclusive proof that when it comes to the game of Olympic sponsorship you are better off running your own race.