Feature

Reclaiming London 2012's marketing promise

Of the 17 brands that were major domestic sponsors of London 2012, ten, including BA, EDF and Sainsbury's, are no longer involved in UK sports sponsorship. Synergy's Tim Crow asks where this leaves the Olympics' marketing legacy.

Reclaiming London 2012's marketing promise

How much would we all give now for another month like London 2012? Five years on, the memories remain crystal clear. The stadiums were ready on time and packed out. Miraculously and gloriously, the sun shone, and the only "rain" came in the form of a shower of Team GB medals. Afterwards, the global consensus was that it was one of the best-ever Games – maybe the best ever. And then we did it all again at the Paralympics, which was, unquestionably, the best ever. It put the U into UK and the G into GB, and being British felt good.

It also felt like a new dawn for sports marketing. But was it?

Famously, the London bid for the Games was won on the vision of "inspiring a generation", especially to take up physical activity. But post Games, that particular needle stubbornly failed to move, until in 2015, Sport England's "This Girl Can" campaign inspired millions of women to get active, with not an Olympic ring in sight.

Shifting the dial on women’s sport

There is no doubt, however, that one of London 2012's biggest marketing legacies was the momentum it put behind women's sport – now, of course, enjoying its highest-ever profile – owing to the success of Team GB's women, spearheaded by the Games' poster girl Jessica Ennis-Hill. This led directly to the intense and continuing competition between the BBC, BT and Sky, all of which ran huge London 2012 campaigns, to be seen as a champion of women's sport. Long may it continue.

A broadcaster also played a key role in another of London 2012's biggest and most positive sports marketing legacies: the re-invention of the Paralympics.

Channel 4's dazzling exclusive broadcast coverage and award-winning "Superhumans" campaign moved sport's most inspirational spectacle from second-class citizen to centre stage, making household names of GB's Paralympic athletes. Again, the legacy continues: Channel 4 repeated the coup at Rio 2016 and has just done so again for the London 2017 World Para Athletics Championships.

London 2017 – the closest thing we have seen to the Olympics and Paralympics since 2012 – also offers clues to other sports marketing legacies of London 2012.

Whereas the London 2017 World Para Athletics Championships attracted numerous big-name sponsors, the London 2017 World Athletics Championship, which begins on Friday, with major BBC coverage and the final appearance of Usain Bolt at the top of the bill, has struggled to sell any major sponsorships. This is the result, as it has admitted, of the Russian doping scandal, which has engulfed athletics – and which we now know tainted London 2012.

How will athletics fill the huge gap created by Usain Bolt's retirement? And will fans and sponsors ever be able to believe again that what they are seeing on the track and field isn't doped?

A brand exodus

Here's a striking fact: of the 17 brands that were major domestic sponsors of London 2012, ten (including BA, EDF, Lloyds and Sainsbury's) are no longer involved in UK sports sponsorship at all. Of the other seven, only one sponsored London 2017 – BP, a Synergy client and committed Paralympic partner, which ran a major campaign around the London 2017 World Para Athletics Championships, as it did for London 2012.

Now, you could advance various plausible theories as to some level of brand churn, in particular changed business priorities and sponsorship fatigue. This is not uncommon after sponsoring something as big and demanding as an Olympic and Paralympic Games. But to lose ten out of 17 brands completely? Whatever sport was selling post 2012, it wasn't for them. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: to lose one may be regarded as misfortune, to lose ten looks like carelessness.

This is not to suggest, however, that other brands, and other events, have not stepped up. And here again the influence of London 2012 has been pervasive.

The State-sponsored strategy to win and host world-class sporting events has led to the UK hosting an unprecedented series of events since London 2012. These have included the Rugby World Cup, the Ryder Cup, the Tour de France and the Women's Cricket World Cup, with more to come. In every case, the staging and fan experience has been superb, inspired by the world-class example (and in many cases the alumni) of London 2012.

Making sports marketing relevant to a new generation

However, London 2012's biggest marketing legacy was the way it transformed sports sponsorship activation. Faced with traditional barriers (the IOC's no logos policy) and new possibilities (the mass adoption of social media), the Games' sponsors re-imagined forever the activation ecosystem around events, and demonstrated for the first time the enormous potential of the collision of creativity and technology at scale.

Every major event since then has evolved and accelerated this model, so that where we are now is light years ahead. But London 2012 blazed the trail. This truly was a new dawn.

Now, five years on from London 2012, sports marketing faces another new dawn and another generational challenge. This one may just be its biggest ever: how to make sport itself relevant to a new generation who aren't satisfied with the status quo of how sports are organised, played and consumed, and are redefining what does and doesn't matter when it comes to following and engaging with sport.

Part of the solution to this challenge, which sport already recognises, is new, shorter formats such as Twenty20 cricket, and media models under which traditional TV-rights deals will give way to partnerships with the new tech giants, who are already at the table. The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed, as William Gibson said.

The unifying power of sport

The other part of the solution is even bigger and more important: to nurture and market the uniquely unifying power of sport as a beacon of hope in a world where division and disunity are the new norm.

To give sport a purpose beyond profit, measured not on how much money it makes or spends, but how it and its brand partners use sport to make a meaningful and tangible social, cultural and maybe even political difference.

Imagine, for example, how powerful it would be if cricket threw all its marketing weight globally behind bridging the gap between Islam and the rest of the world, which of all sports it is uniquely qualified to do.

Now that's what I call inspiring a generation.


Tim Crow is CEO of Synergy