Sponsors run risk of ambush at Olympics

What links MasterCard, Nike and Sony? Research commissioned by Marketing Week reveals that the British public wrongly believes all three brands are official Olympics sponsors.


The majority of official 2012 Olympics sponsors will need to improve their game when it comes to public perceptions of their activity if their marketing investment totalling £700m is to pay off.

With just over nine months to go before the London Games start, research carried out for Marketing Week shows consumer awareness of brands’ involvement with the Olympics is fairly poor, meaning they are at risk of non-sponsor brands reaping benefits they aren’t entitled to.

In a specially commissioned survey of 1,000 consumers run by Lightspeed Research last month, the big-name brands that people wrongly think are sponsors include MasterCard, Nike, Sony, HSBC, Pepsi and Dell. Lightspeed gave consumers a list of brands and asked them to say whether they are sponsors of the games or not. The results reveal that 20% think MasterCard is sponsoring London 2012, compared with 27% who correctly identify Visa as an official sponsor.

Adidas gets 14% in terms of prompted awareness of its £100m sponsorship, compared with 15% of people who wrongly think that rival Nike is involved with the games. However, Coca-Cola trumps Pepsi, with 38% correctly identifying Coke as an official supporter, compared with 9% who think Pepsi is the official soft drinks supplier.

Ralph Risk, Lightspeed’s EMEA marketing director, says the public’s false perceptions of non-Olympics sponsor brands are forgivable because of the “halo effects” of big brand activities. “People automatically assume big brands are involved in big events,” he says.

The consensus across the Frontline panel (see below) is that large multinational brands stick in the minds of consumers anyway. However, the brand power of official London 2012 partners McDonald’s and Coca-Cola sees them hold their own against outsiders. They top the prompted recall list at 39% and 38% respectively.

But the panel also concurs that any fears of ambush marketing by non-sponsors will encourage official partner brands to communicate their sponsorship very clearly.

Stephen Vaughan at official Olympics partner Thomas Cook says: “I think the ambush marketing activities around 2012 will be 10 times worse compared to what has happened before. Brands will use the Union flag, carefully worded copy or former athletes to establish a link. It just makes me more determined to ensure the quality of our official communications.”

Business brands that have signed up to become official Olympics partners such as Dow, Adecco, Cisco and Deloitte are at the bottom of the prompted recall ranking thanks to the nature of their sector and lack of consumer awareness. The majority of respondents also indicate that they do not know what these brands do.

Lightspeed’s Risk says: “You would expect business-to-business brands to be looking at how they talk to their partners and clients about their Olympic activity. It probably wouldn’t give them that much bang for their buck by talking to general consumers.”

Men are more likely than women to nominate each of the most mentioned brands as a sponsor, whether they actually are a partner or not. For example, 43% of men name McDonald’s as an Olympic sponsor compared with 35% of women. Risk puts this down to the fact that men typically consume more sports content.

When asked whether individual sponsor brands make appropriate London 2012 partners, Adidas, British Airways, BT and Thomas Cook topped the list at 77%, 62%, 56% and 53% respectively.

Meanwhile, official partners Coca-Cola, Cadbury which is spending about £20m and McDonald’s fare less well, with 31%, 40% and 56% respectively saying that they are not appropriate Olympic sponsors. However, Coca-Cola is the only one of the trio to have more respondents answering positively than negatively.

The brands people feel are the most appropriate sponsors tend to be sporting properties, or those which seem key to the smooth running of the games, such as technology or transport, says Risk.

“There is an obvious conflict in consumers’ minds with fast food and soft drink brands and elite athleticism, but constructive partnerships can pull a brand out of this negativity. It’s always a challenge for brands like this to move people’s perceptions away from the unhealthy factor,” he reasons.

“But we have seen the likes of McDonald’s bring in more messaging about healthy eating and encouraging people to get involved in sport and exercise. It’s a positive way to use its brand value. People become more accepting if they can see that brands are trying to help people enjoy the Olympics.”

However, the research reveals that just 18% of people say they feel more positively towards Adidas as a result of its Olympics sponsorship, compared with 16% for BA, 13% for Lloyds TSB and 12% for BP. Despite the perceived lack of enthusiasm, the results can be interpreted positively for the three brands that have had to deal with negative publicity in the recent past, including industrial unrest, the financial crisis and environmental disasters.

While London 2012 sponsorship may have yet to deliver the desired results for many partner brands, Risk says the activity that unfolds in the months to come could drive buzz. “Sponsorship activity is only just starting to ramp up, and on its own it might not have a perceived impact and it is difficult for people to define,” he says.

“People will be more positive if they know that a brand’s Olympic partnership is about more than just advertising and it is there to do something good.”

The frontline

We ask marketers on the frontline whether our “trends” research matches their experience on the ground


Stephen Vaughan

Managing director

Thomas Cook London 2012 Partnership

Our 11% prompted recall [in terms of people realising that Thomas Cook is a sponsor] is a positive result, as we have let everyone on our marketing database know they can make this once in a lifetime trip with us, because we have 315,000 Olympics tickets.

We are doing a lot of work with our own people, for example recruiting 200 staff to look after our customers at the London games. We will be rewarding outstanding performance by giving torch relay places to staff and have 50 volunteer places for staff too.

We have signed an agreement with the British Olympic Association that will see us involved with Olympic events and Team GB until 2012. This will help us position ourselves as the place to go for Olympic and sporting activities.

What helped secure this is that we have 800 stores in the UK, so we reach a lot of the population, and that is perhaps why 53% in the survey say we are an appropriate sponsor.

Although 37% say they don’t know what we do, we expect this to change as we begin to promote that we are the only place on the high street that can still get people to the games [if people buy a package with Thomas Cook]. But we need to tell people about this at the right time because we want to ensure we have a receptive audience rather than make the market engage when it isn’t ready.

I don’t think any business has done enough yet around their link with London 2012, but I expect that to ramp up when the time is right. If you ran this research again closer to the time I expect there would be an improvement across the board.


Nathan Homer

Olympics project director

P&G UK and Ireland

Our global International Olympic Committee (IOC) partnership means we are embarking on a campaign that will last a decade or more. We’ve already seen the success of our association with the Olympics during the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. Our brand awareness and familiarity levels jumped considerably and we expect to see similar returns as we dial up our campaigns here in the UK.

Although 37% in the survey say they don’t know what P&G does, people are more familiar with our individual brands, such as Fairy and Gillette. It’s only since April this year that we have stepped out from behind our brands to speak to consumers directly as P&G. Our IOC partnership is our opportunity to build closer relationships with the people who buy our individual brands. We know it is working because we have seen purchase intent increase 22% when we connect our consumers with our corporate brand.

Our Proud Sponsors of Moms campaign at the 2010 Winter Olympics yielded 39% higher brand recall and 62% higher message recall than average. Consumers in the UK already have over 90% awareness of our brands and we’re confident P&G will be just as familiar a household name by the end of this journey.


Duncan Blake

Director of brand


The latest data we have follows a similar pattern to this survey, with just under 50% positive and less than 10% being negative. Through our communications we have highlighted how BP is helping make London 2012 a success. We have focused on how we are supporting British athletes, fuelling the Olympic fleet and offsetting its carbon footprint.

London 2012 is the first time BP has supported the Olympics and we expect awareness to build over time. Our research conducted by Millward Brown shows that prompted awareness with our target audience is about 30% and growing.

Our 2012 sponsorship is also helping us accelerate the introduction of new fuels to the UK and boosting membership of our Target Neutral carbon offsetting programme. I hope the positive response will grow as people become aware of what we are doing.

It doesn’t surprise me that some brands in the survey have received good recall results when they are not Olympic sponsors. I don’t think it devalues official sponsors’ positions, it just means we have to work hard to get our message across in a distinctive way.


Gordon Lott

Head of London 2012 partnership and group sponsorship

Lloyds TSB

In line with our own evaluation, our recall results in this survey are strong because community is at the heart of our 2012 activity. They show the strategy and how we are communicating it is working. We are giving people tangible ways of getting involved with the games, through the torch relay and asking the public to nominate their local heroes. We also run activities like National Schools Sports Week and ticket giveaways.

I’m pleased that 43% in this survey say Lloyds TSB is an appropriate Olympics sponsor but I wouldn’t read too much into the 17% who say we’re not. There has been bad press around the banking sector and this might be a reflection of that.

People do associate large global brands with big events and have high recall of big brands. We and other partners will be focusing on a distinct communications strategy to set us apart from non-sponsors.




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