What has the Olympic Games taught us about event sponsorship?

What has the Olympic Games taught us about event sponsorship?

Big companies draping their names over an event through sponsorship does not necessarily hold sway over increasingly savvy consumers, argues Hackney-dwelling Pete Brown. These days people want something in return.

So, it all turned out rather well.

Living in a part of London that is a mere javelin throw from the Olympic stadium, I was expecting the worst. But, from the opening ceremony through Team GB’s astonishing medal haul, the Games themselves were a delight.

I wonder if Heineken feel the same way? A rumoured US$15m for exclusive pouring rights is a substantial investment for the brewer, but in social media circles and London pubs it seems to have reaped a mixed reward.

When you type a search term into Google, it tries to think for you and suggests complete phrases based on what you’re typing, based on the most popular searches containing the words.  This morning, I typed in ‘Olympic sponsors’, and the top five suggestions were:

  • Olympic sponsors
  • Olympic sponsorship
  • Olympic sponsors tax
  • Olympic sponsors tax dodge
  • Olympic sponsors tax break

For those who know about the agreement that sponsors would pay no tax on their Olympic profits - an agreement that has now been widely reported - being an Olympic sponsor is not necessarily a brand builder.

And, this only added to the sizeable sense of ill will that had already been generated around the issue of ‘guerrilla marketing’ and the protection of sponsor’s investments.  

Of course, protection against ambush marketing is necessary. But, as event marketers have become cleverer, legislation became more draconian in response, to the point where the rights of sponsoring brands now come before the individual citizen’s right to freedom of expression.

Alarm bells started ringing at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when Dutch fans were prevented from entering the stadia unless they took off the orange trousers they were wearing which featured a small logo for Bavaria beer. When I Googled ‘Budweiser World Cup’ during the tournament, every link on the first page went to critical coverage of the official beer sponsor for being too heavy-handed.

At the 2010 World Cup, a group of women were removed and arrested for the crime of wearing orange dresses. Even though this was clearly a piece of ambush marketing, there was no branding whatsoever on the dresses this time, and private individuals - not a rival brewer - faced jail terms simply for wearing the wrong colour. Ambush marketing had become about context rather than branding, and commercial skulduggery had become a matter of criminal law.

London 2012 saw an acceleration of this trend. Newspapers have been full of stories of local butchers being told to cease making sausages in the shape of five rings, or cafés being told to stop advertising a ‘flaming torch’ breakfast. On the day the torch procession passed through my manor, our local newsagent was visited by the local constabulary after he refused to take down ‘unofficial’ balloons. These people were not ambush marketers; they were not trying to pass themselves off as Olympic sponsors. They were just trying to enter into the spirit of things.

Heineken was the only lager available at Olympic venues - a Dutch brand with exclusivity in a country passionate about its brewing heritage. Marston’s, who sponsors Lord's cricket ground on a long-term deal, saw its wares pulled from the venue for the duration of the Games

Brain’s, whose brewery stands next to Cardiff’s Millennium stadium, was forced to cover the brewery in a giant Heineken poster. Attendees at the British Olympics were prevented from drinking British beer. In social media, beer drinkers vented their rage at the brewer.

To be fair, I hear that Heineken themselves were much more relaxed about exclusivity than the IOC. Heineken UK also owns other brands, but though allowed to sell them at stadia, was forced to rebadge its Strongbow as ‘cider’ and John Smith's as ‘ale’. 

It all started to feel a bit like we were living in a corporate totalitarian state, where the rights of the IOC and its sponsors came before those of communities.

But, this was a necessary price, we were told – the games relied on the sponsors, and the sponsorships relied on heavily-protected exclusivity.

Was it worth it though?  

No one seems sure. Research carried out by sports marketing agency Havas showed huge leaps in awareness, image and purchase intent. Other research agencies that didn’t have a vested interested in sports sponsorship found a more ambivalent attitude, with more than half of respondents polled believing Nike was a sponsor, little awareness of some other sponsors, and open hostility to sponsors whose products were at odds with the healthy, sporting ideals the Olympics supposedly inspires.

In my past life as a beer marketeer, I worked on quite a bit of sponsorship myself.

Our research found a surprising degree of marketing literacy among mainstream consumers. They recognised that sponsorship helped fund a thing, but demanded more than that. Draping your logo all over that thing, and nothing more, was seen as simply riding on the coattails of its success. They expected to see a pleasing, appropriate fit, a synergy between sponsor and sponsored, and ideally some direct evidence of the benefit of the sponsor’s contribution.

At its best, this would manifest itself in some aspect of the event that wouldn’t have been there without the sponsor. I worked on the UK Stella Artois film sponsorship, and when we staged free outdoor screenings of classic films, respondents said: “I understand that you’re doing this to get greater loyalty from me, but you’re giving me something in return that I wouldn’t otherwise have had. Okay, you can have my loyalty.” Crucially, this attitude was just as strong in people who knew about the events but didn’t go, as it was among those who actually attended.

Similarly, when Molson Coors created exclusive Carling, intimate ‘homecoming’ concerts in its sponsored venues for famous bands, or allowed its drinkers to choose the Man of the Match awards in its football sponsorship, people were delighted to be getting something from the sponsor they could not otherwise have had.

These lessons seem to have been lost somewhat. When I cannot buy Olympic tickets unless I have a Visa card, when I am told that I will not be allowed into an event wearing a Pepsi T-shirt, and when I am only allowed to drink one brand of beer in venues that normally have a broader selection, the sponsor is not enhancing my experience of the event - it’s spoiling it.

I am not anti-sponsorship, and I am certainly not anti-Heineken. But, these Olympics have demonstrated that, if you’re a brand sponsoring a major sporting or cultural event, or considering doing so, it pays to put the consumer first – just as it does in any other kind of marketing.