Revolutionary Measures

Making an impression in the snow – 4 PR lessons from the Winter Olympics

It is easy to be cynical about the Olympics, particularly given their cost, widespread doping scandals and the attitude of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself, which remains dogged by allegations of corruption and vote-buying when it comes to selecting host cities.PyeongChang_2018_Winter_Olympics.svg

For those of us in the UK, the Winter Olympics also adds in the unfamiliarity of sports we’ve either never come across before, or dimly remember from four years ago – and are generally unlikely to medal in. It should all add up to a switch-off from viewers, meaning that the marketing benefits, in the UK at least, of being associated with the Winter Olympics are negligible.

And yet, Pyeongchang 2018 did provide some striking stories, in terms of competitors overcoming adversity, true underdogs (such as Ghanaian Akwasi Frimpong in the skeleton bob) and the rise of a new generation of young, cool athletes, exemplified by 17 year old men’s snowboard slopestyle champion Red Gerard. It is a long way from Ski Sunday.

So, what are the PR lessons that brands can learn?

1. It’s all about the host
Given that the background to most events is white and indistinguishable, it is difficult to link it to your particular country. You don’t have the opportunities to use the landmarks of your city, as the likes of London and Barcelona did to brand it as ‘your’ games. That makes what you do behind the scenes, and the bookending opening and closing ceremonies, vital if you want to get your message across. The South Koreans focused on innovation and technology – from the drones that formed the Olympic rings in the opening ceremony to cardless technology that let people pay for things through devices such as gloves, stickers and pins. And this message came across loud and clear, helping differentiate brand Korea from competitors such as Japan and China.

2. Quirky is good
There’s a whole range of Winter Olympic sports, from the conventional (throwing yourself down an icy track on a souped-up tea tray or downhill skiing) to the frankly, mad – anything with the word ‘cross’ in the title, which seemed to involve a lot of falling over at high speed. And they all appealed to different demographics – the younger events looked cool and genuinely exciting to the casual viewer, with their stars building cult followings on social media and YouTube. So, unlike the Summer Olympics brands have more of a choice in terms of who they support and link themselves with. This is something to take forward into every marketing campaign – if you want to reach a demographic understand who influences them and ally yourself with them.

3. Success isn’t the only measure
People relate to athletes with strong stories – even if they aren’t going to win. They want to support those that are clearly trying, even if things end up going wrong, as shown by the ‘success’ of Eddie the Eagle Edwards. The lesson is clear – while winning medals is the aim, audiences respond to those that go above and beyond, and are human in failure. Take skater Elise Christie, seen as a medal favourite, but who left empty-handed and injured, for the second games in a row. The lesson for brands is that winning is great, but it isn’t everything – support people that your customers respond to at a human level and it will make your brand more approachable and easier to relate to.

4. You can gatecrash Olympic marketing
During every big sporting event, brands try and piggyback on the marketing opportunities that appear, normally without paying to become an official marketing/advertising partner. In the case of Pyeongchang, the most successful case of this was not a company, but a country – North Korea. In a master propaganda stroke it appeared to step back from conflict and push forward an agenda of peace at the games, headlined by Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and a combined Korean team entering the opening ceremony together. While none of this changed its position at all, from a PR point of view, many will see it as less of a threat – a complete fallacy – but exactly what its PR machine was aiming for.

So, overall the lessons from the Winter Olympics are to be more human, target the right demographics and tell a story – all key lessons for any marketer, whatever industry or size of company they work for.


February 28, 2018 Posted by | Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Is sports sponsorship worth the money?


Sponsoring a successful sportsperson or team should be a no-brainer for brands. Provided they pick one that appeals to their key demographic, they can benefit from their success, use them as a spokesperson, boost their brand and generally engage more deeply with potential and actual customers.

The Parc des Princes, which was hosting the fi...

However, if this is true why are many of the biggest companies in the world conspicuous by their absence from sports sponsorship? I may have missed it, but I don’t see the logos of Google, Apple or Facebook on footballer’s shirts, F1 cars or advertising hoardings in athletics stadiums. They simply don’t see it as a good use of their marketing budgets it seems.

Looking deeper, this is part of a retrenchment over the past few years, with commercial sponsors replaced by trade suppliers in many sports. In Formula One, the biggest sponsor of Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes is, err, Mercedes, while Red Bull is a hybrid owner/sponsor. In cycling a large number of teams are sponsored by bike manufacturers and equipment suppliers and in athletics the likes of Nike and Adidas have a huge profile. In football seven of the 20 Premiership teams were sponsored by online bookmakers over the 2015/6 season, and a further two (including champions Leicester) by their owner’s companies.

So, why are consumer brands less visible when it comes to sports sponsorship – and what can clubs, teams and sportspeople do about it? I think it boils down to four factors:

1. The threat of scandal
There’s always been a chance that your brand’s chosen ambassador will go off the rails and get you publicity for the wrong reasons. But in an age of constant scrutiny the slightest indiscretion is now plastered over the front pages before your brand has the chance to react – look at Tiger Woods as a good example. As testing technology improves, more and more drugs cheats are being caught, even if, as in the case of Lance Armstrong, it is years after their offences actually took place. And that’s before you start on the impact of corruption within governing bodies on public and business perceptions of a sport. Many brands simply don’t want to take the risk of involving themselves in a crisis down the line.

2. Value for money
Sports sponsorship obviously covers a huge range of budgets and opportunities, but generally is becoming more expensive. Global competitions, such as the Premiership and F1 have a worldwide reach, meaning that only the largest brands have the budgets to spend on sponsorship. And to get any value from your sponsorship you need to make sure people know about it, using other marketing activities to make sure that your target audience feels involved and included, and that you maximise the impact through advertising, corporate hospitality and other add-ons.

3. Saturation
We’re coming up to Euro 2016 and the Rio Olympics, meaning sports fans will see a procession of sponsor logos over the next couple of months. By the end of it all, will people really remember who sponsored what? Was it Nike or Adidas that provided the match balls for Euro 2016, or had pride of place on the stadium hoardings? I’m sure, if asked, many fans would claim to have seen adverts for brands that weren’t even there, such is the level of advertising saturation we are subjected to thanks to wall-to-wall TV and internet coverage. Demonstrating this, over half of the brands that consumers associated with Euro 2016 in a poll were not even sponsors of the tournament.

4. Other opportunities
Put simply, brands have a growing number of places where they can spend their marketing budgets. From online advertising to supporting good causes, they are all opportunities to boost a brand and engage with audiences. In many cases these channels weren’t there 10 years ago – and equally some sports have been hit by what you can and can’t advertise. One of the reasons for the growth of F1 for example was the enormous sponsorship from tobacco companies – they had nowhere else they could advertise in most countries, so could focus their budgets on one sport. F1 is in many ways still coping with the hangover, with high costs and a cultural desire to outspend rivals – but not the budgets to support it.

Digital channels in particular make it much easier to measure the results of marketing in terms of click throughs, visits and sales, whereas measuring the impact of sports sponsorship can be more difficult.

So, is sports sponsorship doomed? Not completely, not while we are still able to be moved by amazing feats of sporting prowess on the field or track. However, brands need to be more careful on what they spend their money on, and activate sponsorship more cleverly if they are to stand out from the crowd. And teams, players and governing bodies need to focus on getting their own houses in order, removing cheats and corruption and remember that the reason that brands sponsor them is to reach the fans – put them first and you’ll build loyalty that will deliver return on marketing investment, whatever sport you are in.

May 25, 2016 Posted by | Creative, Marketing, PR | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sport – the dirtiest business of all?

In an age of social media and always-on news, every brand can feel that it is constantly under attack, even if it is for what seems like trivial reasons. Surly barista serve you coffee? Unclean hotel room? Consumers can share their thoughts and views with the world in seconds, and quite often the resulting viral storm will be intense, but fade as quickly as it came into being.

English: panoramic shot of the olympic stadium...

In contrast, the world of sport, or more specifically its administration, is facing an unprecedented attack from both media and the public. FIFA has now been joined in the dock by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), with senior figures alleged to have taken bribes to ensure that failed drugs tests never saw the light of day. A report published by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) points the finger at doping on a massive scale by Russian athletes, implicating senior figures in its government, while French prosecutors have arrested Lamine Diack, the ex-head of the IAAF, who is accused of receiving bribes of over €1 million to cover up failed tests. And it isn’t that long ago that the International Olympic Committee (IoC) had to confess that cities had ‘bought’ the right to host the games, while the close links between the then senior leadership at cycling’s governing body the UCI and drug cheat Lance Armstrong have also been highlighted.

On the outside it seems like all these organisations have a culture where too much power and a sense of entitlement mix with control over major decisions that have big political or financial impacts. As the head of UK Athletics pointed out, the leader of the IAAF is referred to as Mr President, inflating the holder’s ego as a matter of course.

Essentially sports administrators are in the spotlight, and need to rebuild their credibility. I’d see five areas to focus on:

1.Look wider for staff
Administrators seem to be either ex-athletes, those that have served their time in country federations or people attracted by the glamour of working for sporting organisations. Often promotion relies on who you know, rather than how good you are at your job. It is time to change this by recruiting capable figures from outside sport to lead administrations. They obviously need to know about the sport they are leading, and have an enthusiasm for it, but they don’t necessarily have to have spent their life in it. By bringing in outside managers, with the right skills (and no links of patronage), it will send a clear message that administrations want to change.

2.End culture of entitlement
The IoC is widely seen to have cleaned up its act, yet its bureaucrats still expect the world to revolve around them. The sell-out London Olympics saw gaps in the venues as “members of the Olympic family” decided not to bother going to certain events, while one of the reasons that Norway pulled out of bidding for the next Winter Olympics were demands for free booze for bureaucrats at the stadium and a cocktail party with the King. No one is against hard-working administrators having access to events as part of their roles, but it should be a privilege, not a right.

I’ve said it before about voting for the World Cup, but every major decision being taken needs to be transparent and auditable. So no secret ballots – the results of who voted for who should be public at the time and open to the widest possible constituency to avoid any allegations of impropriety. All activities, particularly those involving potentially controversial subjects such as drug testing and financial matters, should be audited independently by consultancies that actually understand them, rather than treating the whole thing as a tick box exercise. The same applies to new hires, who should have to declare any business interests to links to particular countries/teams/companies.

4.Move offices
The IAAF probably has strong tax reasons for being based in Monaco, while FIFA and the UCI (amongst others) have headquarters in neutral, but secretive, Switzerland. At a time when credibility is tenuous, location matters, so associations need to look at moving to more ‘normal’ jurisdictions where they can be subject to proper scrutiny. It should also help with recruiting from a wider talent pool.

5.Be more independent from political control
As the Russian doping scandal (and winning Russian bid for the World Cup) both show, it is easy for administrations to become subject to outside political influences. This is true not just in Russia, but other countries where sport is seen as a tool of soft power, irrespective of the rules. Therefore all local administrations need to be independent of government, without members of ruling families or parties running them to avoid any allegations of bias.

Sport has the ability to bring people around the world together – a fact that administrators and their marketers are always reminding us of. This cuts both ways – not only do fans join together to salute outstanding athletic achievements, but they can equally unite to condemn the administrators that are destroying the sports that they love.

November 11, 2015 Posted by | Marketing, PR, Social Media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments