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