Olympics present multiple challenges for marketers beyond COVID

Linda J. Dodson

If it feels like it was only a few months ago we were celebrating the end of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, that’s because we were. Regardless, it’s time to gear up for another Olympiad this February, though you might not know it from the marketing run-up.

Diplomatic protests, COVID restrictions and unfortunate timing have made these Winter Games a muted affair.

“I feel like brands are less engaged,” said Basia Wojcik, vice president of sports at The Marketing Arm. “After all the stuff we went through with Tokyo, people are a little gun shy. There are so many uncertainties.”

Baked-in challenges

One of the biggest issues marketers are contending with is China’s human rights record. Much of the attention has focused on China’s violent suppression of the Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim populations. As the United States and other countries have opted to keep diplomats and other government officials from participating in the games, the pressure on Olympics sponsors has increased.

“As members of The Olympic Partner (TOP) Programme, your companies are not only contributing to the fanfare of the Games, but are promoting and glorifying a genocidal regime,” wrote Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in an open letter to sponsor companies. “It is not a stretch to say that Airbnb, Alibaba, Allianz, Atos, Bridgestone, Coca-Cola, Intel, NBC, Omega, Panasonic, Procter & Gamble, Toyota, Samsung and Visa are now ignoring an ongoing genocide in the blind pursuit of profits.”

At a time when consumers are expecting companies to take bolder social stances, sponsoring companies don’t want to be seen as aligning with human rights abuse. At the same time, they don’t want to alienate the world’s largest consumer market, particularly as they’ve already invested billions of dollars in sponsorship.

“We tend to [look at the issue] with a Western orientation or a U.S. orientation,” said Rick Burton, David B. Falk Endowed Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University. “Coca-Cola sells a lot of product in China. If they were to say, ‘We’re going to boycott the Olympics,’ it could have huge business implications.”

Plus, every Olympics seems to come with its own political controversies, Burton added. At the 2014 games in Sochi, much was made of Russia’s persecution of homosexuals and gay rights activists. It’s also not out of the realm of possibility that other countries could highlight gun control or other issues when the Summer Games come to Los Angeles in 2024, he said.

“It’s baked-in to the sponsorship that they know they’re going to be challenged,” he said. “If they’re going to do something, it’s going to be done quietly and privately.”

Unfortunate timing

The case can also be made that the 2022 Winter Games are the victim of unfortunate timing. The year-long postponement of the 2020 Summer games means barely half a year has passed since the last global contest.

“The Winter Games typically have less interest and viewership than the Summer Games,” Wojcik said. “And with the Tokyo hangover, brands are being slower or less likely to activate with the quick turnaround.”

It’s not unprecedented to have the Summer and Winter Olympics within a short time frame. Through 1992, the two sets of games were on the same four-year cycle, Burton noted. However, everyone seems to have adjusted to the two-year cycle at this point.

“We haven’t had [the four-year cycle] for a long time,” he said. “The conditions have changed.”

Similarly, February is a particularly crowded month for sports events. This year, for the first time in history, the Super Bowl and the Olympics will happen concurrently, Wojcik pointed out. February is also the time of the NBA All-Star Game, the NHL All-Star Game, the Daytona 500 and the FIFA World Cup UAE. That’s a sports marketer’s dream… or nightmare.

“If you’re a global sponsor, you’re aware there’s a lot of saturation in sports in February,” Burton said. “Everything is on, and customers may be focused on the NFL or some other sport.”

And finally, there’s the COVID of it all. The pandemic is already forcing restricted spectator attendance at the games. With fewer spectators, the impact of on-site activations will be severely limited, and interest in the televised events may also drop.

“It could be Tokyo all over again, which, marketing-wise, wasn’t great,” Wojcik said.

Still, it has been said where some see challenges, others see opportunities, and the 2022 Winter Games are not without hope. Regardless of the controversy, competition and COVID, the Olympics is event programming that will draw a huge audience.

“For the brands doubling down on this, it’s a huge opportunity,” Wojcik said. “It’s a very hot three weeks, so there should be exponential returns.”

Plus, there are enough well-known athletes competing – Shaun White, Chloe Kim, Mikaela Shiffrin – and perennial events like figure skating that will draw even casual fans, Wojcik said. Most of the marketing campaigns so far has come from NBC Sports and its related entities, like one with Universal Pictures to promote “Jurassic World Dominion.” NBCUniversal has also struck an agreement with TikTok to bring new content and advertising experiences to the video-sharing app around the Winter Olympics.

Finally, there are the stories. The Olympics are known for their tales of dedication, determination and triumph over seemingly impossible odds. That will not change in 2022, and, in fact, it may be even stronger given the world has faced over the past two years.

“The messages are still the messages,” Wojcik said. “You want to pull on heartstrings and tell the emotional stories.”

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