Jonathan Gabay, author of The Brand Messiah
Jonathan Gabay, author of The Brand Messiah
A view from Jonathan Gabay

Think BR: The state brand Olympiad

If they get it right, the London 2012 Olympic Games could make it a special year for brands, writes Jonathan Gabay, author of The Brand Messiah.

Nostalgia, hope, success, and unity - above all measurable results - keep brands on target and consumers in buying moods, if only to alleviate boredom and frustration.

Similar nouns and adjectives are shared by one of the world’s most admired branded events: the Olympic Games - especially corporations who have put their names to it during the last 28 years.

Study YouTube clips from the 1984 Los Angeles Games; in addition to seeing an athletic Sebastian Coe grab gold and silver, you may just spot some other familiar icons from the era.

This was also the year in which no less than seventy US banking brands failed (ring a bell?), MTV launched its music awards - now a crucial international brand platform - and the Stay Puft Corporation’s brand mascot spooked New York.

It was also when an entrepreneur called Peter Ueberroth saved the Olympic brand’s torch from being snubbed out for good.

By the mid Eighties, the Games had become increasingly costly to stage. Take 1976 as a random example - Canadian taxpayers forked out $1.5bn for new water sports facilities. (The UK’s Olympic cost is set to be £24bn - up from the 2005 estimate of £2.37bn).

Add boycotts from countries wishing to score politic points and the Games were slowly running out of cash. 

So Ueberroth made corporations an offer they couldn’t refuse:  In return for a TV audience of 2.5bn, he convinced major brands to foot part of LA’s bill. The ’84 games became the first privately financed Olympics. In addition to presenting a global caring, sharing image, brands had rights to feature emblems along with title of Official Sponsor of the 1984 Games.

It paid off with a surplus of nearly $250 million and a Time Man of the Year award for Ueberroth.

One year later, another man took the International Olympic Committee to even greater financial heights. His name was Juan Antonio Samaranch, He started TOP (The Olympic Partner Programme). Its aim: increase Olympic brand value.

TOP became one of the world’s most exclusive brand clubs. A four-year membership alone cost approx. $50 million. In return, brands have the right to use the Olympic symbol in advertisements.

Olympic brand reach and value continue to mature.

The London games will reach an estimated four billion people. To put that into context, the 2012 Super Bowl reached 111.3 million viewers. Madonna’s televised half-time brand promotional gig reached 114 million.

These kinds of measurable numbers bode well for London’s own brand fairground - not just for corporations - but Brand UK itself.

Spectaculars like the opening ceremony are designed to put boost Brand UK’s global image as a world innovator, community supporter and creative force.

All the brand razzmatazz reminds me of a 1945 B-movie called State Fair. Its music was breezy, plot light and acting, featherweight.

Unsurprisingly, the story centred on the State Fair. Visitors from far and wide came. It made them feel united and even encouraged many to enter competitions of endurance, strength and tenacity. However, rather than wowing judges with human athleticism, these contests were about prizewinning wild hogs.

In between sporadically crooning happy tunes, the movie’s popular actors enjoy refreshing glasses of all-American Coca-Cola. (The brand remains the longest continuous supporter of the Olympic Movement).

State Fair was designed to give audiences a sense of escapism, harmony and hope.

While some things remain the same, others have changed, including popular cultural role models.

Describing London’s Games, the writer Will Self said: "They’re a boondoggle for politicians and financiers, a further corruption of an already corrupt self-appointed international coterie of Olympian c*nts, an excuse for ‘elite’ athletes to fuck each other, snarf steroids and pick up sponsorship deals."

Self specialises in provoking audiences. He also represents the often supressed sentiments of the back bone of ordinary people who keep economies running.

London’s Games will hopefully leave a powerful legacy of renewed optimism. However, given the current climate, Olympic brands will have to leap some difficult hurdles. 

They must provide a sense of support and encouragement. On the other hand, they are dealing with brand-savvy, often cynical global consumers, looking beyond superficial slogans and happy tunes.

Get it right and 2012 could be a special year for brands. Equally, if they misjudge their footing, it could be the year not just of brand whitewash, but hogwash from the brand farm.

Jonathan Gabay, author of The Brand Messiah