The Olympic marketers: why we sponsored London 2012; what we've learned; what we'd do differently

After years of work, the moment of truth is almost upon Olympic sponsor brands. CBS Outdoor partnered with Marketing to bring together senior marketers to talk about what they've learned from their involvement with the greatest sports show on earth.

Suzi Williams, Jat Sahota, Lionel Benbassat and Ian Symes
Suzi Williams, Jat Sahota, Lionel Benbassat and Ian Symes

The waiting is almost over.

With the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games only a few weeks away, years of painstaking work and preparation are about to reach a crescendo.

Sponsors that have invested millions are about to discover whether they have adopted the right strategies, and all the blood, sweat and tears were worth it.

For the marketers steering these ambitions, this summer could prove a career highlight or... well, the alternative doesn't bear thinking about.

Marketing, in association with CBS Outdoor, asked senior marketers from Olympic sponsors to take a break from their busy schedules to discuss their hopes and fears for London 2012.

This diverse group covered a range of sectors, spanning B2B and B2C, as well as service suppliers to the Games. Each has specific aims, objectives and different strategies – and all share the same desire to succeed.

What has the experience been like? How are they going to make the most of this golden opportunity? And will they be among the winners, or the losers?

Marketing: How did you make the case for Olympic sponsorship to your boards?

Sally Hancock, director Olympic marketing & group sponsorship, Lloyds Banking Group: It stemmed from our 'For the Journey' repositioning. 2012 seemed a great representation of that. We wrote a detailed case with lots of numbers, which we don't look at now. It has been a leap of faith in LOCOG and a marker that we believed in ourselves as the first sponsor.

Norman Brodie, general manager, London 2012, Cadbury: The original sign-up was around taking Cadbury to a global status. However, Kraft could have pulled the plug in that it might not have activated the sponsorship, but that hasn't been the case.

Lionel Benbassat, director of marketing, Eurostar: We knew that we would have a role. Whether (the Games was held) in Paris or London, we were winners. We took a classic business case to the board based on economics, but also how it would position the brand. We are known in Paris, London and Brussels, but not more widely.

Suzi Williams, group marketing and brand director: BT I wasn't emotionally pro-Olympics, so we ran a meaty piece of research looking at propensity to purchase, and, to my surprise, it showed how Olympic association would build consideration, favourability and purchase. It took a year to get the process signed off. It's a notoriously complicated thing to get involved in, particularly in telecoms.

Ian Symes, marketing director, UK, Ireland & London 2012, Cisco: There were two drivers: the effect on staff, and to counter a perception that, in the UK, Cisco was the sales company for a Californian IT business. For us, the Games is a starting point, not a finish.

Jat Sahota, head of sponsorship, Sainsbury's: Respecting the rights of existing food and beverage retailers was important, and we found that it was going to be quite complex for any supermarket. Then the question was posed: 'What about the Paralympics only?' The values were a good fit, and we built the business case from there.

James Eadie, Olympic portfolio director, Coca-Cola North West Europe: Coke signed up in 1928. As a worldwide partner, you have to understand the host country. (For every Games) we look at what the Olympics can help us transform and address. For London it's worked well because it's a cool city that young people admire.

Marketing: P&G has said Olympic association will add $500m to sales. Is that surprising?

Tim Crow, chief executive, Synergy Sponsorship: It's working for P&G, because it has found white space using mums as the campaign theme. That resonates, because unlike most major events, the Olympics has a 50/50 female/male audience split.

Marketing: How are you tracking your Olympic involvement?

Benbassat: Ours is traditional brand-tracking; sales figures and metrics, seeing how people view the business. We will track the legacy for two years. It will help us decide whether we want to do this again.

Williams: The focus is on doing a brilliant job and seeing the results that follow. I'm more worried about getting it right next month. We've tracked the journey every month in a relatively traditional way.

Marketing: A PwC report after the Beijing Olympics said for every £1 sponsors spend, they need to invest £3 in activation. Is there a rule of thumb?

Crow: That oft-quoted rule is wrong and misleading. Businesses and sponsorships vary widely. Global Olympic sponsors approach the Games globally and invest accordingly, which is different from how domestic sponsors plan and invest. Then there's the difference between B2B and B2C brands, and so on.

Brodie: It also depends on when you started. We've probably spent four times as much activating as buying the rights. There are a lot of hidden costs. We started early in 2010, so we want to see progression over that period and like everybody else, we wanted multi-dimensional benefits for customers, colleagues and community.

Marketing: Will these be the 'social Olympics', as many have predicted?

Eadie: Sponsorship and communication is about great content that can flow to different consumer touchpoints, and social is a fundamental part of that. Digital has a disproportionate impact, and changes the way you think about your campaign. You need to be clear about what you are trying to achieve. We have very different measures for Powerade, Coke and Glaceau.

Brodie: So much has evolved during our tenure of sponsorship that we have almost had to evolve our social plans every three months. We've gone from having about five or six people on digital to about 20. It's embedded across the business and Kraft has adopted it in other categories.

Benbassat: We are trying to engage with quite an unforgiving audience. If trains break down, we will be hammered. You need to be prepared to react to what's happening and to engage more than we would normally.

Marketing: Has the Olympic experience changed how you market?

Symes: Whether it is social media or ambush marketing, you need to be able to react within minutes, not weeks. You hope that stays with the business and creates a greater level of dynamism. In Cisco, it will have a global legacy in terms of how we go to market.

Marketing: Are you breaking any rules?

Sahota: For one-off domestic partners like us, there's no rule book. You look to your objectives and find creative ways of executing them. We are co-sponsors of Channel 4 output with BT and that's something we haven't done before. We put on an event to mark a year to the Games called Super Saturday. It led us to look at mass events, and we sponsored the Diamond Jubilee event in Hyde Park.

Brodie: In the past, there was a gap between campaigns. Every marketer wants to join the gaps and our strategy was 'Always on', which involved digital, events and PR. We've had £460m of PR value from what we've done for the Games.

Marketing: Are sponsors competing with each other for share of voice?

Hancock: We created a partner network to share experience in non-conflicting areas. The last event had about 90 people there. We all have different experts in different things and it's for the greater good of us all to succeed in those areas.

Brodie: We made an effort early on to try to do partnerships with other sponsors. Most partners have reached out. It's reassuring when you go to seasoned pros such as Adidas and find they're having a tough time as well.

Marketing: Are you anticipating much ambush marketing?

Hancock: We're fairly pragmatic and it would have to be something major to worry us. In five years, we've had one conversation with LOCOG about brands infringing on our rights.

Symes: You have to be prepared. We've done war games. We have an ambush marketing process, a duty manager on call 24 hours a day, and we take it seriously. I don't think it's likely to happen, but we are prepared if it does.

Sahota: If somebody significant did something, I think we'd all jump on it. In supermarkets they will skirt as close to the line as they can, as we would. We will be vigilant and expect LOCOG to be too.

Crow: The challenge is how it is handled when you have, for example, the Bavaria beer/FIFA situation we saw at the 2010 World Cup. Ambushers like that want to provoke the maximum legal reaction, which then produces all the media stories.

Marketing: Do you tire of negative media reaction to London 2012's corporate sponsors? Does your role in making the Games happen need to be communicated better?

Hancock: I don't think the fact that the Games couldn't exist at its current scale without sponsors has come across as strongly as it might have. Our stance has been not to rely on LOCOG, and activate our stuff and have pride and faith in what we do. The onus is on us to tell a strong story.

Williams: We are delivering eight times the bandwidth of the Beijing Games so that people can use Twitter and Facebook, and there are 1000 BT people making it happen. We are not talking about it until nearer the time and we are sure it's all going to be great.

Marketing: Any marketing bearing Olympic and/or Paralympic IP, including the logo, has to pass through LOCOG. How has that been?

Symes: You go through a learning process with LOCOG and in the end it's quite slick. The challenge is more internal when other parts of the organisation wake up to the Olympics and suddenly want to run an ad or print 1000 T-shirts by Tuesday. LOCOG is somewhere between an adviser and regulator.

Benbassat: There has been influence on the final output, but not the overall direction. We have put forward creative that LOCOG has asked us to change at quite an advanced stage. I won't miss that.

Marketing: Do you worry about the Athens syndrome and being associated with a white elephant legacy?

Reynolds: There is already a successful commercial entity in Westfield with projected footfall of 35m in the first year. There's a natural audience, unlike the Olympic parks in Athens and Sydney, which were out of town. London is different.

Symes: We've focused on the business legacy. Up to 30% of the Park network will be taken out and used in incubation centres. We're starting a five-year awards programme for tech start-ups and early-stage businesses and we are training young people for the 100,000 unfilled jobs in ICT. We also have a schools programme.

Crow: What will be interesting in London is that the effect of the brands is much more pronounced, because the IOC usually has a campaign running with the Olympic broadcaster. Here you don't, because it's the BBC. So it will be interesting to see people's view of the Olympic brand and how it's shaped by what brands have done.

Marketing: What would you do differently if you had the chance to do it again?

Brodie: We started early and it was hard. We would have done some things differently but not much. We won't be throwing the bulk of our investment at Games time. We can't compete during the window of the Games with Samsung and brands like that, who can throw millions at wrapping buildings.

Williams: I would have started our major activation a bit later and more confidently. I would also have been braver at times and said 'no' to some of the grand plans that were never going to happen.

Marketing: What have been your brand's Olympic highlights so far?

Sahota: As a Paralympics-only sponsor, we set a challenge for 1m kids to have a go at Paralympic sport. We ended up with 2.4m pledged. We chose a winning school which had a secret visit from our ambassador, David Beckham. It was a magic moment.

Brodie: A current one is 'Unwrap gold', which is our 'Willy Wonka' moment, where people can win tickets. We have some aggressive expectations for it and it has comprehensively exceeded all of them.

Reynolds: For us, there's the commercial and people element - being part of the torch relay has been great for our team. It's a great showcase for some of our assets. We also wanted to show that we could deliver 70,000 volunteers to LOCOG and get the engagement of the public.

Hancock: I flew back from Athens with the Olympic flame. One night I was in the InterContinental and the next the Seaview Caravan Park, Land's End, for the start of the torch relay. Arriving in Land's End and seeing so many people waiting, I realised it was going to be incredible.

CBS Outdoor is the Official Provider of Advertising Services to the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Around the Table

Lionel Benbassat, director of marketing, Eurostar

Benbassat joined Eurostar as online marketing manager in 2004. After heading marketing for Eurostar in France, he moved to London in January to lead a centralised marketing function.

Norman Brodie, general manager, London 2012, Cadbury

Brodie is leading Cadbury's London 2012 campaign.

He was previously head of category development at Coca-Cola Enterprises, rising to marketing director.

Tim Crow, chief executive, Synergy Sponsorship

Crow joined Synergy in 1999 and was appointed chief executive in 2007. He has consulted on sponsorship for brands in most major categories.

James Eadie, Olympic portfolio director, Coca-Cola North West Europe

Former Army captain Eadie has been at Coca-Cola for more than a decade. He has made music partnerships, such as Coca-Cola's tie-up with celebrity DJ and producer Mark Ronson, and grass-roots events key strands of its Olympic marketing strategy.

Sally Hancock, director, Olympic marketing & group sponsorship, Lloyds Banking Group

Hancock was previously chief executive of sports sponsorship consultancy RedMandarin, and joined Lloyds Banking Group in 2007 to help it capitalise on its £80m Olympic deal.

Liam Reynolds, director, CBS Outdoor

Reynolds was the trading director at News International before joining CBS Outdoor in 2010 as national sales director. He leads the agency and specialist sales teams for the London 2012 official advertising services provider.

Ian Symes, marketing director, UK, Ireland & London 2012, Cisco

Symes held executive positions at Electrolux, Interpet and Zanussi before establishing Wolfpack Marketing, a strategic consultancy. In 2006, he moved to San Jose, California, to join Cisco.

Suzi Williams, group marketing and brand director, BT

Williams is a former Procter & Gamble marketer. She was appointed director, group marketing & brand, for BT Group in July 2006, having joined BT the December before as global brand chief.

Jat Sahota, head of sponsorship, Sainsbury's

Formerly head of corporate responsibility and of non-food marketing at Sainsbury's, Sahota became head of sponsorship in June 2010. The supermarket is the Paralympic Games' sole sponsor.

Three things marketers have learned about London 2012 brand sponsorship

1. It's not about sport

It may be the biggest sporting event on the planet, with an estimated audience of 5bn, but sponsors tend to view the Olympics as transcending sport.

Sally Hancock, director, Olympic marketing & group sponsorship at Lloyds TSB, says, "During the torch relay it has been more about bringing the nation together. It has been quite special. The Games is just the final five minutes of a year-long journey. Sport is the event, but not the platform."

Tim Crow, chief executive, Synergy, adds, "The Olympics isn't really about sport, in the way Live Aid wasn't about music. If you approach it purely as a sports sponsorship, you'll leave a lot of value on the table."

2. You can't make a business case for the Olympics

There is an element of blind faith in sponsoring the Olympics. Brands need to carefully evaluate what they want to achieve, establish how they can accomplish this creatively, and work like crazy to draw maximum benefit.

Norman Brodie, general manager, London 2012, Cadbury, says, "It's difficult to make a business case for the Olympics if you're not directly sports-oriented. You have to look at the longer term and broader and deeper sets of benefits."

Jat Sahota, head of sponsorship, Sainsbury's agrees and says there is a danger of picking numbers to suit the case. "However, we've sold millions of 2012 products, and the best is yet to come," he adds.

3. You don't know what you don't know

For many of the brands at the Marketing roundtable, this was their first time as an Olympic sponsor. It has been a steep learning curve, at a time when the tools available to marketers, particularly in the digital arena, have been evolving at a frenzied pace.

Cadbury's Brodie says, "We weren't very advanced in the areas of digital, events or PR, and we've pushed our learning hugely, which will be legacies after the Games."

Suzi Williams, group marketing and brand director, BT, adds, "We've learned a lot from previous partners, who have been incredibly generous. There is sense of the Olympic family.'

Wish I'd Done That

P&G's 'Proud sponsor of mums' was held up by the roundtable participants as a great way of using a sponsorship creatively to unite a whole range of household-name brands. The company has used this portfolio approach in recent years, with an NFL sponsorship deal in the US, and the 'Proud sponsor of moms' tagline for its support of the US team at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics.

Its worldwide partner deal covers the next five Games, through to 2020, giving it the opportunity to put the Olympic gloss on brands such as Pampers, Tide, Ariel, Crest and Olay.

On the home front, Cadbury's bravery in deciding to be a front-runner in its Games exploitation has included its use of sponsorship across several brands including Dairy Milk, Twirl, Crunchie, Double Decker and Caramel.

It has employed a plethora of quirky campaigns including 'Spots vs Stripes', 'Goo Games' for Creme Egg, and chocolate bars in the shape of the Wenlock and Mandeville mascots.

The most recent 'Unwrap gold' campaign offers the chance for consumers to win tickets for Olympics events. With the Games imminent, it appears Cadbury can be satisfied with its work already.