Olympic Secrets Revealed

David Allison is on a mission to find out what Olympic sponsorship can do for a brand.


David Allison is on a mission to find out what Olympic sponsorship can do for a brand.

Writing about marketing and branding, as I do, doesn’t often require aliases and meetings in shadowy corners of out-of-the-way gin joints. But this interview with the rep from one of the biggest Olympic sponsors was only granted with assurances of secrecy, a hidden identity, and no clues that could reveal which sponsor he represented. Seems like a spy novel scenario, but your intrepid reporter rose to the challenge to find out just why a brand would spend untold multi-millions to play in this high-stakes global branding game. Flip up the collar on your trench coat, pull down the brim of your fedora, and join me as we reveal what many many millions of dollars buys you in the global branding race.

According to the IOC website, TOP sponsors are part of the The Olympic Partner Programme. Created in 1985, the TOP programme, managed by the IOC, is the only sponsorship level that grants exclusive worldwide marketing rights to both Winter and Summer Games. So these are the biggest of the big boys.

There are only nine companies in the world who have committed to this level of sponsorship. And while I can’t find a figure for what it costs to join this club for our Games here in 2010, I did find an NPR report that stated the TOP sponsors contributed a total of US $866 million to the Beijing Olympic efforts. And that’s just the cost of entry. In addition to the price paid to be a TOP sponsor, brands then need to spend spend spend in order to actually do something with that sponsorship. 
My contact wants to be called Drew. I’d have chosen something more like a LeCarre character; Algernon, Sebastian, or even Agent X. Regardless, my interview with Drew tries to get to the bottom of what sponsorship at this gargantuan level offers to a global brand, and how the economic reality of today is changing the opportunity.

ONE BRAND CLAPPING: Tell us about what you do, Drew.

DREW: I focus on brand related issues for one of the TOP sponsors and work primarily on Olympic related initiatives. Past Olympics have given me a varied view on how leveraging the sponsorship takes place within host nations.

Writing the sponsorship cheque is just the simple part of the process, because global sponsorship has to be global. It has to be activated in the greatest variety of markets possibly imaginable. Promotion and advertising need to be placed and coordinated in every single country around the world. Then there is what we call host nation activation, which needs a lot of hands-on attention, to ensure that our association with the Games is done in a celebratory way and leaves some kind of legacy with regards to culture and the general marketplace. And that’s where I come in.

OBC: I’m interested in how a mega brand like yours rationalizes Olympic sponsorship at any time, but especially these turbulent times.

DREW: It’s a hard question to answer. My gut feeling is that we shouldn’t walk away just because times are difficult. We are a global organization. It’s one way we can support our clients and customers during difficult times. But of course the actual process is now more difficult than ever.

OBC: What are the concrete and measurable benefits you hope to achieve? 

DREW: To celebrate our association with the biggest sporting event in the world.

OBC: But what does success actually look like when it is all said and done?

DREW: Success can be measured on different levels — to have successfully created a brand presence within the host city and on the international stage. It must be done in a positive way where we leave a lasting legacy behind…not something that just stops when the Games finish. We want to boost our market presence within the host nation and indirectly abroad.

OBC: Do you just have a blank cheque from the head office?

DREW: We’ve come to a point where the days of what I’d call “blind sponsorship” are well and truly over. All sponsorship related initiatives must be measurable, and ROI is top of mind during the whole process. This is new thinking. All line items on our budget can be tracked and adjusted based on results. It’s all very precise these days.

OBC: Has the current economy changed things for you in other ways?

DREW: On the one hand the economy has created more focus on budget so it does somewhat hamper our activities. But conversely it has opened doors for more opportunities with regards to buying power within the media world. There are fewer brands scrambling for media placement, so we have more negotiating power than we used to.

Also co-sponsorship opportunities – working together with other partners – suddenly has become possible. All budgets have been cut and we need to work together to create a big bang with what we have left. Partnering up with other sponsors is not something we have done before but we are open to all possibilities now.

OBC: What do you hope to get out of this experience personally?

DREW: I love my job. I keep falling in love with the host cities I am stationed in, and Vancouver is no different. This place, this Province is amazing! I am having a wonderful time.

OBC: Personally I am hoping to get two tickets to the opening ceremonies. You going to hook me up?

DREW: It’s the Olympics, David. It’s all about dreams. It’s good you have yours.