The London 2012 Olympics has brought us many firsts, from world records to parachuting royalty to public transport that just about works.
But London 2012 has also seen some interesting advances in the way brands activate their marketing campaigns around events like the Games.
Brands and their agencies have worked hard to wring extra value out of megabucks sponsorships with initiatives whose success lies less in raw spending power than in their appeal to audiences’ passions and interests.
These initiatives can take many forms - entertainment or utility, physical or digital - but, for me, if they achieve a level of relevance that earns the brand a real function in our lives, they are branded content.
Sometimes a clever idea that fits with the brand and prompts a smile or a moment’s thought is enough.
I witnessed a brilliant example inside the Olympic Stadium itself, in theory a brand-free zone.
Strange movements caught my eye during the men's javelin. What were those little vehicles beetling around over there? And gosh, had one of them been skewered by that Estonian's first round attempt?
In fact they were an ingenious javelin transport system: 1:4 scale radio-controlled Mini Coopers that took the thrown spears the 80-odd metres back to their owners. The iconic car brand is of course owned by BMW these days, and the German manufacturer deserves a gold medal for this witty, unobtrusive and thoroughly British way to amplify its sponsorship.
Channel 4 scored an early victory with its trailer for its coverage of the Paralympics. It was a classic long form ad, but its combination of emotive topic and powerful material - the causes of disability as well as Paralympians overcoming it spectacularly - made it an essential social media share.
Other brands went to greater lengths in their quest to play an ongoing role in people’s Olympic lives.
Lloyds TSB created Local Heroes, a series of stories that championed the Olympians and Paralympians that would be adored in their home towns whether or not they made the podium.
The bank’s local theme extended to the quirky vintage bus it sent on the Olympic Torch Relay, which cleverly evoked a Postman Pat idyll of village branches with cheery staff who remember your name.
Samsung sought to make good its invitation to 'Take Part' with a smartphone app that promised to keep users up-to-date with every event. It was a shrewd move for a mobile brand to earn an ongoing relationship with audiences through on the go Games data, and so own the ‘Second Screen Olympics’.
Unfortunately a poor user experience let the idea down: though there was no shortage of data, it was more encyclopaedia than newsfeed. It never threatened to replace the BBC, Twitter, or indeed the scoreboard, as the go to resource for Team GB obsessives.
Unsurprisingly, Coca-Cola, with more years of continuous Olympic sponsorship under its belt than anyone else, was ambitious too.
The Coca-Cola Beatbox would have delighted even the most brand-weary visitor to the Olympic Park. The jumble of food concessions and megastores on London Way gave way to a spectacular red and white construction that looked like Beijing’s Birds Nest styled by the White Stripes.
But this was no oversized street furniture - visitors could walk inside the Beatbox and touch the structure to create music from the sounds of people playing sports all over the world, as sampled by A-list beatmaker Mark Ronson.
In fact this was just one manifestation of a vast, multi-faceted music activation that Coke wove around the Olympics.
Ronson was the cornerstone of the Move To The Beat TV campaign, and his samples also provided the fuel for a major digital content initiative that allowed Coke’s sponsorship to come to life before, during and after the Games.
Samples were matched to users’ Facebook activity to create Olympic flavoured tunes that were more or less unique to them. (Mine was an indie rock take on beach volleyball; spot on in other words.)
They could then share them with friends, upload them to a global gallery and try out others’ contributions, all of which helped Coke reach the 50 million Likes landmark.
This was a vivid illustration of the Coca-Cola Company’s 'Liquid and Linked' approach: small, easily shared pieces of content that multiplied rapidly through social networks, while still being part of a single, coherent idea that worked on TV, online or in real life, wherever people happened to experience the Olympics.
One key lesson London 2012 has taught us is that creative-led branded content programmes are central to how brands seek to increase ROI from major events, with the real winners being those who don’t just treat them as events, but as material for conversations that continue long after the flame has moved on.
Disclosure: several LBi clients were title sponsors of London 2012