Going For Gold: Digital Marketing & the Olympics

Olympic athlete on mobile phone

Every four years, the world gathers to see their champions compete on an international stage. While the athletes perform feats of dexterity, strength, and speed, the behind-the-scenes marketing campaigns that help bring these champions to our screens deserve a moment of their own to shine.

Record-Breaking Ad Spend

Historically, the Olympics is a reliable event to boost international brand awareness and skyrocket sales. Amid the uncertainty of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, many brands faced difficult choices in regards to how they could market themselves around the games. While the fate of the games rested in uncertainty at the beginning of the year, an event like the Olympics is irreplaceable, reports Digiday. The viewership numbers, even if currently in decline this year compared to prior years, is a once-in-a-four-year opportunity; no other event could rival the brand recognition efforts quite like the Olympics. 

Geography and consumer sentiment matters in terms of how ads are directed at viewers; when polls showed that Japanese viewers weren’t interested in the event amid pandemic concerns, Toyota rescinded their ads to their home market in Japan and has subsequently become the biggest spender in the U.S. so far. 

However, the spectator-less games this year hindered some of the brands that relied on in-person signage for part of their promotions. As brands got creative last year when fans could not attend sporting events in-person, the 2020 Olympics should be not different in terms of how brands engage and connect with their customers. Newer avenues like social media proved to be an effective route to connect with fans no matter their location.

Branding the Olympics

2020 Tokyo Olympics

Credit: NBCUniversal

Now more than ever it’s important for brands to find the right tone with their ad campaigns. The International Olympic Committee’s (I.O.C) guidelines mandate that ads should be generic, according to Marketing Brew. However, generic ads have to still strike the right balance between sensitivity to the conditions surrounding the Olympics and generating an enthusiastic connection between the brands and the games. Brand trust can be a delicate thing, especially in the limelight of such an international event. Just as SuperBowl™ ads leave their impression in popular culture and consciousness, Olympic campaigns can make their mark — if they stick the landing.

But the Olympics themselves are a brand that only an exclusive few have the right to use. There are expansive trademarks over the Olympics’ intellectual property and only sponsors have the right to use official terms like “Olympics,” “Olympic Games” and “Olympiad(s),” as well as the Olympic rings symbol. All other non-sponsor brands, as well as athletes, have to be careful about their messaging and imagery when campaigning around the games. Brands have to be clear about their standing with the I.O.C., in that they differentiate between official and non-official sponsors. Non-official sponsors and other brands have restrictions on the language they can use beyond the official terms and logos, as they cannot use terms that even suggest the Olympics, depending on the context, including “victory,” “Games,” “medal,” etc., reports AdWeek.

Despite the restrictions, many modern athletes are turning to social media to dictate their own stories and personalities, without any of the sports marketing ties. 

A Social Media Sequence

As the social media landscape expands, fans are able to interact more with athletes and follow their individual journeys. Social media has the unique ability to bring people from all over the world together through mutual interest and intrigue and allow them space to be a part of the Olympics, without setting foot in the arena.

Social media marketing for the games first took off with the 2008 Beijing Olympics, spurred on by the fledging Twitter and burgeoning Facebook. However, the International Olympic Committee sites the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics as the ‘First Social Media Games’. The Committee created their own Facebook page about a month before the 2010 games started; this page attracted 1.5 million fans, and attracted a younger audience, with 60% of these fans being under the age of 24. YouTube, Twitter, and Flickr helped promote the games through their respective mediums, giving fans behind-the-scenes glimpses of their favorite athletes, live updates, and photos. Social media quickly became as prominent an aspect of the games as the athletics themselves. 

“Olympic athletes and professional and amateur athletes can use social media to put themselves on a stage, to represent who they are, to represent their values beyond just their skills. Because they are role models,” Scott Campbell, PhD, Communications and Media Department Chair and Constance F. and Arnold C. Pohs Professor of Telecommunications, says to Michigan Minds. “It also makes them more vulnerable. These are young people and the dynamics on social media are so very hard to keep up with.”

A Personal Performance

Through social media, we can see the humanity and struggles of the top athletes. Gymnast Simone Biles took to Instagram to say, “it wasn’t an easy day or my best but I got through it. I truly do feel like I have the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. […] The olympics is no joke!” Biles pulled herself out of the competition to focus on her mental health and ensure she was in the right headspace to perform to the best of her abilities. Biles told of her feeling what gymnasts call ‘the twisties’ through a dozen-plus Instagram stories; the immediacy to connect with her fans and the personalized aspect of the platform proved to be the best space for Biles to share her story. The subsequent outpouring of support for Biles from her fans helped to normalize prioritizing one’s mental health and humanizing one of the most viewed events in media.

Simone Biles Olympics Instagram announcement

Credit: @simonebiles on Instagram

Biles stayed to cheer on and help her teammates, writing to Instagram later, “I’m SO proud of these girls right here. You girls are incredibly brave & talented! I’ll forever be inspired by your determination to not give up and to fight through adversity!” 

Social media has been beneficial for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to promote newer sports, like skateboarding, and promote the personal branding of athletes distinct from partnerships and sponsorships. Personal branding worked wonders for weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, reports Bloomberg, as she got enough money to represent the Philippines — and win the country’s first gold medal — after posting an Instagram story in 2019 asking for financial support. 

While there’s undeniably more pressure to always be at their peak, athletes can turn to social media to connect with loved ones and fans and to better tell their own story. 

TikTok as an Olympic Sport

While social media interaction gives fans a sense of the athletes themselves, the rise in digital resources makes the games more accessible to people around the world. Ilona Maher of the U.S. women’s rugby team has used her personal TikTok channel to show what life is like inside the Olympic village, all while sporting Ralph Lauren and Nike sponsored Team USA apparel. Fans may not have been able to sit in the arena or reliably stream the games from NBC, but they can follow along through alternative mediums like TikTok. And brands are taking note to reach fans where they are.

By living in a global, omnichannel world, we have to take advantage of every platform we can to better reach fans and customers alike. Fashion brands specifically are greatly benefiting from this increased exposure, as athletes show off their latest sneakers, bucket hats, and loungewear. Who wouldn’t want to dress like an Olympian?

Relying more on TikTok, however, can give priority to the athletes themselves and their personalities, rather than the brands they are repping. People relate best to other people, to their journeys, their struggles, their humanity. Olympic advertising and campaigns may be a game-changer moving forward.

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