What marketers learned from the Winter Olympics

What marketers learned from the Winter Olympics

Now the Winter Olympics have reached their conclusion, we review the marketing highlights from the Games, and ask how brands made the most of the excitement and competition in South Korea.

The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang were unquestionably a landmark event. When South and North Korean athletes marched under a flag of unity during the opening ceremony, it reminded the world that sport could be a catalyst for peace, progress and unity.

Beyond these humanitarian achievements, the 23rd Winter Olympics presented a major marketing opportunity for brands. It is expected that the total TV advertising spend will break the record of $977m (£700m), set in Sochi in 2014.

Record-breaking coverage

It’s easy to see why the Winter Olympics are so attractive for marketers. According to official figures, around three billion people worldwide tuned into the Games. Several new records were set, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) confirmed that global media organisations broadcast 14 per cent more coverage than for the Sochi games. 

In addition, the amount of coverage available on digital platforms was around double that aired on TV. For instance, the BBC offered UK viewers 650 hours of coverage via six high-definition (HD) streams on digital platforms, compared with 200 hours of network TV coverage. However, this figure was dwarfed by NBC Universal in the US, which treated viewers to 2,400 hours of coverage across all platforms – another record.

Gold advice: Audience and advertising spend is likely to increase again for Beijing 2022, so marketers are advised to start budgeting now

New media for new audiences

While the summer Olympic Games feature more sports, have a broader global audience and command a larger slice of advertising spend, it felt like the Winter Games had finally came of age in PyeongChang. The notion that the sports involved – such as bobsleigh and snowboarding – align with a younger, hipper demographic, seemed to click with brands. Some began to refer to the Winter Olympics as the ‘cool cousin’ of the summer Games.

From this perspective, the groundbreaking deal between US broadcaster NBC Universal and Snapchat made complete sense. Under the arrangement, users of the social media platform were able to watch live streams of certain events, fed through from the NBC live broadcast. Significantly, this was the first TV partnership for the social platform.

Another organisation keen to engage Snapchat’s youth user base was the official Olympics Channel. To this end, it supplied Olympic-themed lenses, filters and stickers to Snapchat users.

Elsewhere, Facebook partnered with Eurosport to stream the opening ceremony of the Games in Germany, Sweden and Norway. Highlights, interviews and social influencer content were also broadcast on the platform in the UK, Germany, Sweden and Norway.

Gold advice: Consider tie-ins with platforms such as Snapchat and Facebook at the next major event, to reach a youthful audience

Telling personal success stories

The existence of the Olympic Channel is noteworthy in itself. Launched by the IOC at the end of the Rio Games in 2016, this dedicated content and news platform presented an original documentary series Far From Home ahead of PyeongChang, sponsored by Bridgestone. The films presented the stories of six competitors who have faced personal, financial and cultural barriers on their path to success. One of the featured athletes was Malaysia’s first Olympic figure skater, Julian Yee, whose training involved practising in shopping centres because of a lack of dedicated facilities.

Yee was also the subject of an animated film by Samsung, which formed part of the electronic giant’s ‘Do What You Can’t’ Winter Olympics campaign, aimed at emotionally associating the brand with drive and success.

Gold advice: Remember that audiences relate to emotional stories, and studies show brand messaging is more memorable when presented in this form

Major brands dominate global sponsorship

In line with previous years, only the world’s biggest brands had the financial clout to enter into the IOC’s top-tier sponsorship programme. Analysts estimate the cost of an Olympic worldwide partnership at around $100m per four-year Games cycle. Among the global brands involved in 2018 were Coca-Cola, Samsung, Alibaba Group, Bridgestone, Toyota and Visa. At the lower levels, dozens of brands have entered into sponsorship deals to enjoy some association with the Games.

One notable absentee from the list of top sponsors this year was McDonald’s, which ended its 20-year worldwide partnership with the IOC in June 2017, three years earlier than planned. Officially, this was a business decision for the brand. However, over the years, many have questioned the sustainability of the fast-food chain’s sponsorship of an international festival of athleticism and fitness.

Support on the domestic front

Team GB sponsors Aldi unveiled a nostalgia-driven TV and digital campaign featuring former star competitors Torvill and Dean, and Eddie the Eagle. Elsewhere, Team GB looked to create exposure for a new wave of relatively unknown British athletes by capturing personal, point-of-view content for the team’s social media channels, using the hashtag #wearethegreat.

Another Team GB sponsor, Adidas, held a Kitting Out event, at which the nation’s athletes were temporarily rendered as life-size action figures, complete with boxes, costumes and accessories.

Gold advice: Could your brand become an official supplier or sponsor of a local event? Conduct a cost-benefit analysis to decide whether the numbers stack up

Beware Rule 40

Brands not directly linked to the Olympics were obliged to tread carefully, however. The IOC strictly enforces Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter, to prevent athletes from advertising with non-official brands during Olympic competitions. Guidance from Team GB explains that this is intended to restrict ‘ambush marketing’ - in other words, those brands seeking to gain exposure without paying for official sponsorship.

The rule also forbids the use by non-official brands of Olympic trademarks, such as the five rings, and of hashtags associated with the Games in any communications, including social media. That meant most businesses were prevented from even offering congratulatory messages to athletes through social channels while the blackout period was in effect, from 1-28 February.

Gold advice: To avoid troublesome litigation, keep track of legal issues around sporting and cultural events, particularly in the area of copyright law

The technology Olympics

South Korea is a world leader in technology and electronics, so it was appropriate that the PyeongChang Games featured its fair share of innovation.

For the first time, the Olympic Broadcasting Service offered virtual reality (VR) and panoramic content for viewers. In total, 55 hours of content were produced in VR, while those yet to embrace this technology could still enjoy coverage in ultra-high definition (4K) quality, as well as super-high vision (8K).

In addition to providing some of the VR technology for viewers, worldwide partner Intel pulled off a coup by supplying 1,200 small airborne drones for the spectacular opening ceremony, setting a Guinness World Record for the number of drones flying simultaneously. Elsewhere, the brand partnered with South Korean communications provider KT Corp to supply 5G high-bandwidth data around certain venues.

Another local brand, Hyundai, took the opportunity to showcase its Nexos automated saloon car. A fleet of five vehicles drove 190km from Seoul to PyeongChang, passing through toll gates, tunnels and junctions without human intervention. Elsewhere, LG Electronics, supplied robots to clean the floors of airports, and to answer enquiries in multiple languages.

Gold advice: International events offer an incredible platform to showcase innovations to the world. Could a local event offer your brand a similar benefit?  

In summary

The 2018 Winter Olympics will mainly be remembered – perhaps ironically – for ‘thawing’ the frosty relations between North and South Korea. For brands and marketers, however, it was also an occasion to engage with customers in new ways, and to associate themselves with values of excellence, achievement and human progress.

James Richards
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