What does the Olympic brand represent in 2016?

Maybe it’s just me but I just haven’t quite been able to get into the Olympics this year. Of course, you can never recreate the buzz surrounding a home Olympics but the anticipation and excitement we experienced during the summer of 2012 seems to have dissipated somewhat. Viewing figures would suggest enthusiasm has faded slightly, and with Sport England regularly reporting significant drops in sporting activity it would seem that the talk of an Olympic Legacy of improved public health has become more and more burdensome.

Since Rio won the right to host the Olympics in 2009, Brazil has been besought with difficulties. There have been economic and political crises, the Zika outbreak, widespread public protest, the Russian doping scandal… and who could forget the outdoor diving pool that mysteriously turned green. Obviously the International Olympic Committee (IOC) can’t be blamed entirely for these issues but it was against this backdrop that these issues came to worldwide public attention. With every passing Olympics, the stakes for governments and athletes become higher and it feels as though we’ve come a long way from a time when the Olympics would evoke thoughts of sportsmanship and the noble pursuit of amateur athletics.

The negative coverage surrounding the IOC mean that building a public health campaign or portraying a host city positively is becoming increasingly difficult. Add into the mix a TV audience with an average age of 55 and there would look to be a whole host of challenges facing the wider Olympic brand. But despite these challenges, the top sponsors have remained remarkably consistent over the last 30 years. This leads me to wonder what the Olympic brand is seen to represent. What do companies feel they get from attaching themselves to a halo brand like the Olympics?

It is interesting to note that despite rising inactivity, the health and fitness industry has grown rapidly since 2012. The conclusion to take here is that although less people are taking part, they are doing so in a more visible and committed manner. Fitness has become fashionable, the popularity of health & fitness accounts on social media and the growth in ‘athleisure’ wear are indicators of this. But not only has it become more fashionable, fitness itself is going through a ‘high fashion’ crossover moment, with a growing number of high-end designers collaborating and learning from the fitness industry; for example, Stella McCartney has once again teamed up with Adidas to design the Team GB kit, the launch of which was covered in Vogue Magazine.

Closely tied in with fashion is the idea of excellence. For most sports the Olympics represent the highest possible standard an athlete can compete at. To reach this level you need dedication, attention to detail and the ability to perform under pressure. Clearly these are things that all brands would aspire to represent. In this context it is interesting to see that Aldi and DFS are amongst the Team GB sponsors. Both are brands who in recent years have been trying to move away from their image as the low quality budget option and be seen as a high quality choice.

Another strand to the Olympic brand is patriotism. To be seen to support Team GB is to be seen as proud of and loyal to the country, and by association to the customer as well. This creates an emotional engagement from consumers so it is no surprise that brands and governments alike want to attach themselves to the Olympics. Looking again to DFS and Aldi we can see why this would be important: DFS have long positioned themselves as a British brand so this is simply a continuation of a central component of their marketing; whereas for Aldi this is a clear statement of intent in which they no longer want to be seen as a purely foreign brand, they want to become part of everyday British life.

So what should a company, or a government, think about when attaching themselves to a halo brand like the Olympics? On first thoughts it would seem a natural fit to place a sporting event like the Olympics alongside a public health campaign, as the government did in 2012, but as we have seen, this has not been successful. The increased visibility and the opportunity to reach target demographics is of course a boost for any business but when it comes to brand positioning, there is far more to consider.

The Paralympics is an event that has all the positive associations of the Olympics but crucially has been relatively unscathed by the controversy. This presents opportunities for brands such as Sainsbury’s to build on their reputation not only as a more upmarket chain but also, more importantly, as the ethical choice.

Looking to other halo brands, we can see some similarities with the English Premier League. Where the Premier League differs from Olympics is that it draws a slightly different audience, still holding on to its ‘everyman’ image. When we think about football we think of the emotional highs and lows and camaraderie of being a fan. Betting firms and alcohol companies like Bet 365 and Carlsberg benefit massively from this brand image, they want to be seen as a vital part of this emotional engagement with the game.

A very different halo effect can be seen with the Monarchy. Companies work extremely hard to receive and maintain Royal Warrants which allow them to display Royal Coats of Arms and add ‘By Appointment to: HM The Queen’ to their branding. Although this doesn’t necessarily lead to many mass marketing opportunities, companies such as Cadbury and Burberry benefit from the feelings of patriotism, tradition and luxury that the Monarchy evokes. Clearly this is appropriate for Burberry but ‘Carlsberg, By Royal Appointment to: HRH’, doesn’t quite seem credible to me.

A company needs to think carefully about where it wants to take its brand and decide whether the halo effect can take them there. In practical terms this means that brands need to conduct research though focus groups and surveys to find the ways in which people perceive their brand, where the biggest opportunities are and which brand territories they could credibly hold as well as asking the same questions of any prospective halo brands. In attaching themselves to an event like the Olympics a company needs to think what an event or brand represents as opposed to simply what it is. So objectively speaking the Olympics is a sporting event but more importantly, what it can represent for a brand is of far greater significance.

Read more about brand positioning here.