As the country, and especially London, looks back on the Olympics, sponsors enter the hardest part of their marathon: the assessment and review. Was it worth it? What went well? What would we do differently next time? What have we learned?
For most, the mood is relentlessly upbeat. 'We got the majority of our returns before the Games even began,' declares Nathan Homer, UK and Ireland Olympic projects director at Procter & Gamble. Once the Games started, he adds, the rest was icing on the cake.
'We've used the magic of the Olympics as a catalyst to get us to a place we couldn't get to before,' says Norman Brodie, general manager, London 2012, at Cadbury. 'It's given us permission to do things differently.'
Now, as eyes turn to the Paralympics, 2014 Winter Olympics and onwards to Rio in 2016, what's new and what will be the true marketing legacy of London 2012?
For a start, the Games isn't just 'an event' any more. For Olympic sponsors it has become a way of life. Not long ago, event sponsorship followed a pattern of a pre-event build-up, event-focused blitz and ... er, that was it. For smaller national sponsors, taking such an approach during the Olympics would have been suicidal. 'We knew we didn't have the big bucks for grand gestures,' says Brodie. 'So we started early, in 2010. Most of our work was done before the Olympics even began.
'Before,' he notes, 'you might have three or four spikes of activity and then radio silence. The step-change is that it's an always-on campaign. There are still some spikes, but they start earlier, last longer and are higher.'
For bigger brands, extending the life and scope of the opportunity is key to maximising its value. P&G started exploiting its Olympics association in stores with retail promotions back in April. For others, like Visa, which has been sponsoring the Olympics for 26 years, it is no longer regarded as a separate activity, but an intrinsic part of their marketing planning.
'For us now, every Olympic Games is a five-year campaign,' says Colin Grannell, executive vice-president of partnership marketing at Visa. 'The Olympics is now continuously in the background. It's not an extra part, it's just part of how we spend our budget.'
Central to this 'always-on' sponsorship is ubiquitous, across-the-board activation. At one time, marketers saw sponsorship mainly through the eyes of traditional media: an opportunity to grab additional eyeballs and add some positive emotional vibes by associating the brand with the event's values. Brands are still doing that, of course, but Olympics sponsorship very much gives permission to play. The real sponsorship games take place with the activation, finding new ways to touch people's lives.
Lloyds is typical. Through its Local Heroes initiative, the bank has funded 1000 young athletes, 46 of whom found their way to competing in the London 2012. It's backed National Sports Week in schools, involving 8m people, and with initiatives such as street parties at 2000 bank branches during last month's torch relay, it has reached out to thousands more. 'We've taken the Games to people across the UK,' says Gordon Lott, head of group sponsorship at Lloyds TSB.
Not to be outdone, Cadbury has organised more than 550 'Games crew' events and 2200 community ones. Almost every major sponsor has run similar initiatives. 'People don't want marketing communications,' observes Brodie. 'They're not really waiting for a commercial. We're using digital, PR events (and) live sites to help people celebrate. It's very much on the ground, not in the air on a poster.'
'Just pushing out the message you want your audiences to hear doesn't resonate and doesn't get a response,' agrees Homer. That's why for P&G, 'there's significantly more focus on content-driven PR, social media - earned media'. This isn't just about more opportunities to communicate to more people via more channels, it's about achieving a different level of emotional engagement.
Social media can help create a much greater feeling of intimacy, notes Homer. It does this in two ways. First, it creates more airtime - a bigger opportunity to explore every nook and cranny, right down to the lives and emotions of individual athletes. Second, vehicles like Twitter create a much stronger sense of involvement. By allowing that feeling of insider knowledge - as when, for example, an athlete tweets about their roller-coaster emotions as they prepare for, and go through, the rigours of the competition - social media can touch consumers' heartstrings much better than traditional media, argues Homer. Behind each athlete there's a tale of a family providing support, making sacrifices, hoping and praying for their loved one. 'The stories of the families behind the athletes are highly engaging and emotional,' says Homer. 'We've gone strongly behind great stories.'
That's easily said, but not so easily done - in fact, it's a massive operational challenge. Knowing how pressured athletes would be during the Olympics, for example, P&G interviewed them for their stories a year before, drip-feeding the content out as the Games progressed. Visa ran more than 200 athlete appearances during the Games, which takes some planning.
On top of that, however, brands have to be far more responsive. 'As a sponsor you have to react far more quickly,' says Grannell. 'We've had to learn a newsroom mentality: meeting in the morning to react instantly to the events of the day. That's very different from traditional media planning and buying.'
So, in this always-on, activation-focused, earnedand social-media-driven sponsorship environment, what hasn't changed?
One thing that remains key is the need for perfect clarity in positioning. Visa saw the Olympics as a platform to attempt to display its values of innovation and performance.
'No other platform provides such an opportunity to demonstrate innovations like mobile payments platforms to customers in such a compelling way,' says Grannell. 'We set out five years ago to make the London Olympics a showcase for real innovations.' What better way to get customers to come and check out your latest offerings? 'Our guest programme is huge,' he declares. 'We have finally worked out how to embed our business goals into the fabric of the game.'
For other brands, like Cadbury, claiming an association with 'performance' doesn't ring true. That's why Brodie took a different tack of focusing on the treat of the experience and celebration. This fits with an emphasis on grass-roots activation - while also providing a neat platform for sales promotions such as 'you win if Team GB wins'.
Meanwhile, P&G bypassed focusing on athletes alone with its 'Thank you, mum' campaign. It generates endless opportunities for the emotional stories that resonate so well (and attract media attention) - and niftily turns the spotlight onto the everyday utility of P&G's brands. 'Olympic athletes are superheroes,' notes Homer. 'Yet they have families like the rest of us. They brush their teeth. They wash their hair.'
The other constant challenge is demonstrating ROI. For FMCG brands, there are clear ROI metrics in terms of sales uplifts. Olympics-related promotions attract strong retail support in terms of display space and 'we know the quality of the display space drives cross-purchase', notes Homer.
Brodie boasts that Cadbury's sales have grown 6.8% this year, compared with overall market growth of 3%, and points out that consumers who are aware of Cadbury's Olympic sponsorship have a 13% higher intention to buy than those that are not. He has developed KPIs across all stakeholders, including consumers, retail customers, colleagues (staff) and local communities.
Lloyds has earned its ROI in another way. 'We recouped the costs of our sponsorship before the Games had begun,' says Lott. How? By lending funds to one third of the companies building Olympics facilities. Olympics sponsorship is also 'a unique differentiator on the high street'. According to Lott, consumers aware of Lloyds' sponsorship are a third more likely to recommend Lloyds - and 'every 1% uplift in advocacy delivers tangible uplifts'.
So, what are the issues and pitfalls that await would-be sponsors? Despite the near-universal enthusiasm, the list is quite long.
The Olympics might bring a positive halo, but it's not capable of wiping out all negative PR. In social media, Dow, especially, failed to rise above its link with Union Carbide and the 1984 Bhopal tragedy.
Then there is the perennial issue of ambush marketing. To some, LOCOG's determination to stamp it out has gone too far, coming close to a new form of commercial totalitarianism: 'Thou shalt not eat anything other than McDonald's or pay with anything other than Visa.' Everyone agrees there's a balance to be struck. Not everyone agrees we've found it.
Meanwhile, more subtle forms of ambush marketing are emerging. In addition to official Olympics sponsors, individual athletes and teams also have their own sponsors. Sponsors of individuals and teams that get to the finals can claim much of the glory without shelling out any Olympics sponsorship cash.
Nike is the official sponsor of the US team; 20m UK viewers watched Usain Bolt win the 100m final. He is sponsored by Puma, and consumers are noticing it (see box, above). These ties are truly galling for the London 2012 official sportswear sponsor, Adidas.
Similarly, since its creation in 2009, Team Sky has made itself synonymous with British cycling. When BBC commentators talk about Team Sky and the GB cycling team almost interchangeably, Sky has a marketing triumph - and Olympics organisers have a headache.
Activation and social media may now be the name of the sponsorship game. Yet Richard Brinkman, head of KantarSport, warns that, while the Olympics is creating ever-greater marketing opportunities, the proliferation of channels, initiatives and platforms means that it is getting harder to make the most of them. 'There is more you can do, and much more to go wrong,' he says.
In fact, says Brinkman, behind the apparent democratisation of the Games via social media, the opposite is actually happening. Far from being less important, grabbing eyeballs is growing ever-more vital.
To cut through the clutter in today's Olympics environment a brand's activation has to reach an unprecedented scale and level of creativity - and not every brand is up to it. While Samsung and Panasonic battle it out for Olympic glory, another sponsor, Acer, languishes almost invisible (see box). Only the biggest of big brands have the resources and muscle to really take advantage of it, argues Brinkman. 'Some sponsors like BA, BT and Lloyds just don't have the weight, consistency, or experience to pull it off.' Increasingly, he says, 'Olympics sponsorship is only really for global mega-mega-brands.'
THE TRUTH BEHIND THE 'SOCIAL-MEDIA OLYMPICS'
These were the first social-media Olympics, so how have different brands been faring online? To find out, Marketing has been working with Interbrand to keep track of their evolving fortunes on social media, online news, blogs and other forums.
Athletes, not brands themselves, attracted the main interest. Jessica Ennis garnered twice the traffic of sponsor Procter & Gamble, for example, with 15,000 mentions between 1 and 8 August. Most P&G mentions were in the US, with just 17% in the UK. There was some negativity around its 'mum' theme. Said one tweet: 'Procter & Gamble Olympic ads ignore dads. Like we don't shop too?'
Some brands simply faded away. Acer, which is no small brand, managed to accumulate a grand total of 277 Twitter followers half-way through the Games. That compares with Samsung's 2m-plus.
Big brands fared well whether or not they were Olympic sponsors. Nike (which sponsors the US team but not the Games) garnered 59,000 mentions online in the run-up to the games. That was double the performance of Adidas, an Official Partner.
Dow suffered from bad word of mouth throughout the Games. It garnered 9200 mentions between 1 and 8 August. Its biggest initiative, it seems, was to position a huge ad visible behind BBC presenters - its own within-Olympics form of ambush marketing. Many consumers noticed the coup, but not all were impressed.
For brands, getting their message through in this environment was a struggle. Between 1 and 6 August, Jessica Ennis had 27,000 mentions online, but just 481 recognised British Airways as one of her sponsors. Over the same period, Usain Bolt received 1.1m mentions, 3260 of which also mentioned his sponsor, Puma.
However, some brands really triumphed with their athletes. In July, before his gold medal, Bradley Wiggins prompted 41,953 mentions across all social media. An extraordinary 25,212 of them - more than 50% - also mentioned Team Sky, the professional road cycling team for which Wiggins rides. What a performance.
Alan Mitchell is a respected author and a founder of Ctrl-Shift and Mydex. Alan.Mitchell@ctrl-shift.co.uk.