BBC News

The corporate Olympic champions

By Katie Hope
Business reporter, BBC News

image captionBeing an Olympic sponsor pits brands directly against the idealism of the Games

While a select number of companies have collectively ploughed an estimated £1bn into the Games as official sponsors, it's not necessarily easy to calculate how they have benefited from that investment.

Consumer-facing firms, such as McDonald's and Coca-Cola, and business-to-business companies such as Dow are among the 11 global firms which make up the Olympic Partners (TOP) programme, paying an estimated $100m (£61m) for the privilege of their minimum four-year commitment.

In London 2012, these were joined by domestic sponsors. Tier-one partners included Adidas, the official sportswear provider, and BP which provided fuel for 5,000 official vehicles.

Further down the corporate ladder, tier-three sponsorship partners included Holiday Inn, the official hotel partner for the Games.


Brand recognition is one of the basic ways firms can measure the benefits of sponsorship.

Research from brand consultancy Havas Sports & Entertainment indicates that Lloyds comes out top on this basis, with 30% recognising the bank as an official sponsor of the Olympics, despite firms such as banks typically receiving low levels of consumer recognition.

"This isn't just because it paid for the rights. It was the first firm to sign up with Locog [London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games] and then invested behind this by promoting its association in a way that engaged consumers," says Alastair Macdonald, director of sponsorship insights at Havas.

He highlights its role as presenting partner of the Olympic torch relay, where the firm turned its branches on the routes into hubs where people could gather to celebrate, as an example of this.

image captionLloyds benefited from its association with the Olympic torch

However, consumer recognition is only one way to define success. Top sponsor Acer, which provided the Games' computing infrastructure, said one of its main motivations was to win new business clients.

"We want to prove that as our equipment and engineers can support the biggest event in the world and satisfy the diverse needs of our Olympic customers, there is no doubt that we can also support businesses of any size," says Walter Deppeler, chief marketing officer.

Creating a story

Successful sponsorship is about more than just hoping some of the Olympic charm will rub off on your brand.

Procter & Gamble (P&G), which makes products such as Head and Shoulders, Pampers nappies and Pringles, was one of the first sponsors to communicate a message beyond its financial support, according to brand consultancy Interbrand.

Interbrand's research showed that P&G's "thank you mum" campaign, celebrating communities and families, which kicked off 100 days before the Olympics started, was picked up by 11% of those it surveyed leading up to the Games.

This compares to the 4% average who picked up messages beyond their basic financial support from other official sponsors.

Nathan Homer, P&G's UK and Ireland Olympic Projects Director, told the BBC that it aimed to make $500m in additional sales thanks to its London 2012 association.

Global recognition

Likewise, credit card company Visa scored well in terms of recognition as a brand sponsor, with 49% of consumers surveyed by Interbrand recognising its Olympic association.

The association, however, was often negative. As the only payment card accepted at London 2012, its "Proud to accept only Visa" slogan at the Olympics came in for heavy criticism, with some customers furious that they weren't allowed to pay with rival cards.

But for Visa, the bigger picture remained positive. "It gained global recognition for its role, boosting it against its main rival Mastercard. Its battleground is global. What happened in London is just a localised skirmish," says Graham Hales, chief executive officer of Interbrand London.

image captionMo Farah and Usain Bolt embodied the spirit of the Olympic Games

Some firms managed more successfully to ride on the coat-tails of the Olympic spirit. British Airways launched its Olympic sponsorship, with a surprising twist, by encouraging people to stay at home.

"Don't Fly," said the tagline. "Support Team GB."

This message, where BA appeared to put its own corporate needs below that of the greater good, "enabled it as a British brand sponsoring a British event to put a mark of ownership on the Games," says Mr Hales.

Ambush marketing

London 2012 was also the first Olympics to feel the full force of social media.

Social media consultancy Sociagility, which used a daily tracker to measure activity on sponsors' official websites as well as their performance on Youtube, Twitter and Facebook, scored Adidas as its top performer at the end of the Olympics.

Adidas, with its Take the Stage slogan for the games, credits its 250% increase in Olympic-licence product sales in the UK compared with the Beijing Olympics to its Olympics involvement.

But you don't need to be an official sponsor to see a boost. Nike, which sponsored individual athletes and a team but was not an official Olympics partner, got 59,308 online mentions between 1 May to midway through the Olympics on 8 August, compared with just 25,554 for Adidas, Interbrand data shows.

Similarly, the Beats headphones range - launched by rapper and music entrepreneur Dr Dre - is not an official sponsor of the International Olympic Committee or London 2012, but managed to gatecrash the Games by sending free sets out to athletes beforehand.

image captionDr Dre's headphones were shown on TV sets around the world

It's not all good

Being an Olympic sponsor can put brands in a harsh spotlight, putting them at risk of a tough comparison with the idealism and dedication of the athletes at the Games.

Dow Chemical saw protests against its role as a top sponsor because of its ownership of Union Carbide, the firm behind the Bhopal disaster in 1984, even though it acquired the firm almost a decade after litigation linked to the gas leak at its Indian unit was settled.

"It's not our issue," said George Hamilton, the executive in charge of Dow's Olympic operations. "We weren't there and we did not acquire any of the liabilities."

But the link still made it the TOP sponsor with the highest percentage of unfavourable media coverage from 1 July to midway through the Olympics, according to business intelligence firm Factiva.

Interbrand's Mr Hales feels the company should have tackled the issue directly: "They have done very little throughout the Olympics. By not facing up to the Bhopal incident, they can't move past it."

McDonald's also saw a high level of negative media coverage according to Factiva, largely because of the impression that its food was not the fuel of athletes. The fast food firm countered by highlighting the quality of its food and some of the healthier options available.

The scale of the Olympics means that the role of sponsors is unlikely to decline any time soon. But it seems that despite the huge amounts of money they are spending on the games, many are still struggling to come away champions.