The marketing Olympics: which sponsors are leading the race to London 2012

Examining the findings of the first of three Marketing/Interbrand surveys, Alan Mitchell probes consumer reaction to brand ties with the London 2012 Olympic Games.

The marketing Olympics: which sponsors are leading the race to London 2012

This isn't a 100m sprint. It's more like a gruelling marathon: an intensely competitive, crowded field jostling for advantage across an arduous terrain.

With this in mind, Marketing has teamed up with Interbrand to track brands' fortunes before, during and after the Olympics race. Not all will win gold. Some could face humiliation. All will struggle to succeed. So, as anticipation mounts, how does the starting line-up look?

Let's start with an apparently simple question: what is an Olympic sponsor? Despite (or, perhaps, because of) the International Olympic Committee's best efforts, it turns out there is no simple, clear answer.

First, there are Worldwide Olympic Partners, which have a long-term association with the Games from one set to another. This elite group includes Acer, Atos, Coca-Cola, Dow, GE, Omega, Procter & Gamble, Panasonic, Samsung and Visa.

Then there's a group of 'tier-one' brands sponsoring just London 2012: Adidas, BMW, BP, British Airways, BT, EDF and Lloyds TSB. Below that, there are London Olympic Supporters: Adecco, ArcelorMittal, Cadbury, Cisco, Deloitte, Thomas Cook and UPS.

Oh, then there's another layer of official 'providers and suppliers' - 28 of them, from Aggreko through Heathrow Airport, Heineken and Holiday Inn, via John Lewis and Next through to Ticketmaster and Westfield. That takes us to 52 sponsoring brands; with Paralympics-only sponsors such as Sainsbury's and Otto Bock, the prosthetics manufacturer, the number rises further still.

For anyone trying to fathom the sponsorship pecking order, however, that's just the beginning. Behind the ranks of 'pure' Olympics sponsors lies another crowded field. Many of the competing teams have their own sponsors; Team Sky in cycling, for example.

Individual athletes also have personal sponsorship deals, which they carry through to Olympic publicities. Usain Bolt's deals include Puma, Gatorade, Hublot watches, Visa and Virgin Media. Jessica Ennis is sponsored by Adidas, Aviva, British Airways, BP, Jaguar, Powerade, Olay and Omega. Some of them are official Olympic sponsors, others not. All are fighting for recognition and publicity.

Meanwhile, other sporting events such as Euro 2012 have been under way. At a time of shrinking consumer attention spans, all this matters. 'This summer is full of sponsorship opportunities,' notes Interbrand UK chief executive Graham Hales. 'You have to look across the calendar and decide when to dial up the volume. Some have (yet to do so).'

So how are the main brands doing as they limber up for their own Olympics marathon?

Mixed messages

Our 'spontaneous recall' table shows which brands UK consumers associate with the Olympics on an unprompted basis. Coca-Cola and McDonald's come out on top. These market leaders are the only sponsoring brands to achieve spontaneous recall figures above 25%. Beyond this there are high levels of confusion. Barclays and Nike are not Olympic sponsors, but one in 10 consumers thinks they are, ahead of official sponsors British Airways, BP and BMW.

Some brands, such as Cadbury and UPS, which paid relatively small sums to be associated as 'supporters', are scoring higher than main sponsors. Cadbury is ahead of both BA and P&G, for example. 'Cadbury has made significant effort with its Olympics (tie) over the past two years,' notes Hales. Meanwhile, five top-tier sponsors achieved only 2% or lower spontaneous recall. 'It's still early days for lots of brands,' he argues.

In prompted recall (see page 26), the waters get even muddier. When reminded of various brands, a quarter of consumers think Nike and Sky are Olympic sponsors. They are not. Other brands benefiting from high rates of misattribution include HSBC, Tesco, Carlsberg, Orange, Canon, Guinness and Hyundai.

HSBC is a major sponsor of rugby and golf, Guinness ties up with the RBS 6 Nations Cup and Hyundai the Euro 2012 football championship. Tesco was associated with the 2010 football World Cup, but is not a major sports sponsor.

Getting consumers to make the association between brand and event is just the first hurdle for marketers. Winning endorsement from them is a different matter. Here, the race is just beginning.

Only one brand, Adidas, wins strong, immediate consumer approval of its Olympics link, with 59% of respondents 'completely agreeing' there's a good fit (see table, above right). No other brand achieved higher than 50%, with five (BA, Coca-Cola, Visa, Panasonic and Samsung) scoring in the region of 30%. The remainder scored less.

To get a measure of perceived fit, we asked consumers about the degree to which they thought different brands exemplify Olympic values, such as demonstrating excellence, being universal, acting as a champion, and so on. Of the London Olympic partners, BMW and Samsung scored best for being 'advanced' with more than 40% of consumers making the connection between the brand and the Games. Visa achieved similar scores for being 'universal'; Adidas for 'competitive'.

Brand sponsorship of Olympics feels like a good fit

How far would you agree, or disagree, with the statement '(brand name)'s sponsorship of the London 2012 Olympics feels like a good fit'?

*= WorldWide Olympic Partner
+= London 2012 Partner

On the other hand, every brand scored poorly for 'courageous' (10% or below) and for 'fair play' (14% or below). While a quarter of consumers found Samsung and BMW 'inspiring', for all other brands the score was 15% or less.

The really bad news for Dow and Atos is that 70% of consumers didn't associate them with any of 16 listed Olympic values. GE wasn't far behind at 62%. As mainly B2B brands they clearly face an uphill struggle, but these numbers show just how steep.

Another crucial issue for sponsoring marketers is whether the association breeds positive or negative sentiment.

So far, only one brand has suffered specific Olympics-related reputational damage. Visa's payments exclusivity deal, which stops consumers using other cards for Olympic transactions, has attracted negative publicity, with many consumers remembering the brand's association with the Games for the wrong reasons.

Verbatim comments from the survey included 'They were being mean and making sure no other cards were used' and 'They want to monopolise cash machines at the Olympics'. Is this a storm in a tea cup, soon to be forgotten, or will it continue to dog Visa?

Others are grappling with bigger, deeper reputational challenges. For McDonald's, sponsoring the Olympics is part of a long-term campaign to shed negative health associations. Its Olympic communications have been designed to show the brand cares about the health and wellbeing of the British public.

So how's it doing? The bad news: a quarter of consumers completely disagree that McDonald's is a good fit with the Olympics; 32% say the brand actually conflicts with what the Olympics is trying to promote, and 39% say its services are not relevant to the Olympics.

Yet, at the same time, something is trickling through. With initiatives such as its 'Go Active' Happy Meals, which give kids pedometers rather than toys, McDonald's is taking something that is front of mind with consumers and turning it around, argues Hales. Some consumers are getting the message, with 10% (double the proportion for other brands) linking the health and wellbeing message to the McDonald's brand.

Spontaneous recall of London 2012 Olympic sponsors (top 20)

Which brands or companies would you associate with the London Olympics?

*=Worldwide Olympic Partner

+= London 2012 Partner

**= London 2012 Providers & Suppliers

++= Not affiliated with the Olympics

Like McDonald's, BP is using the Olympics as part of a longer-term reputation make-over. Following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it desperately needs to restore its green credentials - hence communications focusing on reducing the Games' carbon footprint. Some consumers recognise its efforts. Said one: 'It is trying to restore a damaged image re the environment and caring for people, the community and the planet. This is a great platform for it.'

High-stakes strategies

Dow suffered negative publicity after India's sports minister Ajay Maken said it shouldn't be allowed to sponsor the Olympics given its links to the Union Carbide Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984. Campaigners say that's just one of a long list of issues that make Dow an environmentally unfriendly company. In response, Dow is refusing to be 'bullied by activists or politicians'.

Another Worldwide Partner, Atos, has come under fire for providing software to the government which, some claimed, unfairly denied individuals the right to claim disability benefits. Said one respondent: 'Atos is a name that means benefit cuts and unfair assessment procedures.'

Prompted association with the London 2012 Olympic Games

Which of the following brands do you think are sponsoring the London 2012 Olympics?

*=Worldwide Olympic Partner
+= London 2012 Partner
**= London 2012 Providers & Suppliers
++= Not affiliated with the Olympic
***= Official partner of London 2012 Paralympic Games only

For these brands the stakes are high. Sponsoring the Olympics attracts attention, and therefore criticism. The challenge is to deflect or defuse it and create a positive spin instead.

Of course, behind every sponsoring brand lies a highly specific marketing raison d'etre. For some brands, such as Coca-Cola, Olympics sponsorship is almost business as usual: it's been backing the Games for decades.

For others, it represents a big strategic shift. For Procter & Gamble, for example, signing up as a Worldwide Olympic Partner is part of a major shift in brand strategy toward building P&G as a corporate brand. (Its ads, celebrating communities, family and 'mums', show signs of getting across: 11% of consumers recognise it as P&G's Olympics message.)

For some B2B brands, the hoped-for benefits are even more subtle, mainly around corporate reputation. For Cisco, it's more about creating internal employee excitement; for global law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer (an official supplier) it's about creating a differentiator in the battle to recruit top talent. For some B2B brands, consumer responses don't matter half as much as their overall corporate reputation.

Whatever their strategy, however, it's still early days. Over the coming weeks, the brands' marketers face the challenge of a lifetime. Can they cut through the clutter to win the brand recognition and association they so crave? Can they avoid misattribution and get their specific marketing messages across, as well as the generic message 'we are sponsors'? And can they turn reputational challenges into triumphs?

The Olympics sponsorship race has begun. All the sponsor brands still have everything to play for.


Interbrand interviewed a cross-representative sample of 2234 individuals in the UK. When asked about single brands, the sample size was reduced to about 375 per brand. This means we can be 95% confident that the right answer lies within +/5% of the number given.