The Olympic Brand Challenge

Terrence Burns ©2014

The Olympic brand.  I love working on it.  It makes my heart beat faster.  It feeds my family and has (mostly) for over 20 years.  It still makes the world a better place; but it's hard work.

One of the best things I love to do is to give lectures around the world to university students; mostly graduate students about the Olympic Brand. There is one particular presentation that I give regularly to one particular university every year – they ask for it each time.  It is a school that only churns out international business and international relations MBAs; so, very global in its focus. I update the presentation each year, but the guts are basically the same.  I was in New York this week doing the yearly spiel for about 40 MBA candidates.

For the first time in 9 consecutive yearly versions of this, the crowd was restless, aggressive and well, a bit edgy.  Yes, they loved the research, they loved the anecdotes and stories, and yes they loved the films.  But...  They (mid-20's, highly educated, and only 3 or 4 from the USA) also were willing to call BS on the Olympic dream I was painting on the screen.  Why?  Because they felt the picture I was painting did not live up to the reality they believe they understand as the Olympics.  That is not good for any brand.

Bear with me.

They asked good, thoughtful questions like:

"How can you stand there and talk about values when the Olympics bankrupt cities…when 50% of the people in Spain under 30 are unemployed?"

"How can you defend "White Elephants" of recent Games...?" (I told you, they did their homework)

"Who can afford the Games anymore - they are for rich people, not for the common man – no one can afford to go to Russia and most Russians can’t afford to go to their own Games!"

"Why did Rome, Munich (and now Stockholm) say "no" to the Games if what you are saying about the Olympic brand is true…?"

“Why do we have some as sponsors in the Games that sell things soft drinks and fast food, if it is about sport and healthy lifestyles…?”

I could go on and on.

But it was actually a very good, very fruitful session – and I had defensible, rational points of view on most of their questions; some agreed with me, a lot didn’t.  I have been expecting this reaction for the last two years.  What struck me most is how strongly interested, if not demanding, they were in real answers, not BS or spin.

This generation knows "spin".  They are marketed to from the moment they wake up to the second they fall asleep by phones, laptops, emails, texts and soon to be wearable technology.  They are suspicious and jaded about "spin".  Can’t blame them.  So, I didn’t spin.  We had a real and substantive debate. Passions ran high but remained respectful.

It was probably the best time I ever had giving this presentation, by the way.

So what has happened?

For one thing, the media reports - deserved or not - surrounding Rio and Sochi have rightly raised awareness of the problems each of these two cities have endured.  Every student in that room knew a lot about the issues and challenges of both Rio and Sochi. So, in a perverse sort of way, these problems have heightened awareness of the Games...but in unintended ways.

In previous years, the students rarely even knew where the next two Games were being held (!), and these are international business and affairs students from all over the globe.  The students were highly sensitized to the “risk” and “cost” of hosting the Games (and the World Cup) in countries/cities that they told me “were not ready yet.”

One Indian student mistook my critique of the current situation, in which I do participate as a consultant to bid cities, as a suggestion that the Games should never go to developing countries.  I emphatically did not say that nor do I agree with it (people hear what they want to hear..).  I said I thought the Games should go to those countries; as a matter of fact, I’ve helped send them there.  But it should be within certain parameters that currently don’t exist in the current bidding process.

He remained agitated and unconvinced.  So I asked him what he thought the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games debacle did for future bidding efforts in India.  I told him Delhi set India’s large event hosting aspirations back 25 years, because they were not ready.  The Indian IOC has been suspended from the Sochi Games for heaven’s sake (but not for the Commonwealth Games mess, for other, Olympic reasons)…I didn't want to hammer him, but he needed to hear the facts.

Other Commonwealth students in the room concurred with me, by the way.  I felt a little bad that he was outnumbered, but he didn’t have his facts straight and he took a run at it.  That’s what happens when one doesn’t have one’s facts straight and takes a run at it.  Reality intervenes, emotion recedes and faces redden.

Two.  Long ago (and I was a small part of this exercise and suggestion) the IOC, in the middle of the Salt Lake City Bid Scandal, realized that its own image and reputation around the world was not very rosy.  So they decided to let the Games be the focal point of the Olympic Brand.  This made good sense at that time; let the IOC, as an organizational brand, take a back seat because everyone loves the Games. But times have changed.

And there are parallels with other sports properties - no one really likes the NFL, or the NBA or NASCAR or even the NCAA - but people love their events, teams and athletes.  Sanctioning bodies are seen as enforcers, etc.  But - there was something deeper, something more systemic with the negative attitudes from the students in that room about the Olympics.

They told me that they did not trust the IOC (so did Germans by the way when they said “no” to Munich’s 2022 Winter Games bid two months ago).  And that, by extension, means they have minimal interest in the Games, the Movement and its future.  This, contrary to wishful and misplaced hope, will not just automatically change with time.  They won’t magically turn into Olympic fanatics when they hit 40.

It is said by some that the Olympics have lost an entire generation.  Core fans of the Games are now 45+.  18-35 year olds (the marketing sweet spot) have waning interest in or affinity for the Games as they exist today.  Is that a “product” problem (i.e., what is on the field of play; are the sports relevant to this age group – to any age group?).  It is a “promotion” problem (who really markets the Games other than a few global sponsors at best)?  Is it a “presentation” problem – this demographic doesn't sit around the TV with their folks watching Games like we did 30+ years ago.

So…that is my 2-hour focus group report in a highly consistent, highly controlled exercise over many years.  Doing what I do, and knowing what I know about the subject, I noticed it and noted it.  And it is alarming.

Why?  Because these young people will become the future business leaders around the world, making marketing and communications decisions.  I have no doubt that an Olympic sponsor will at some time employ one or more of them.  Think about that.

Here is the good news:  there are many, many things the IOC/Olympic Movement/Olympic Games CAN DO to remain relevant, and I think the new administration of President Thomas Bach very much understands this challenge.

To my friends (and detractors) in the business, I repeat, “I really do think President Bach is aware of this alarming trend and intends to address it – he gets it”.

But what consumers and read in the media is at best 1/3 of the real story going on behind the scenes – both good and bad by the way.  And no, I am not claiming that the Movement is without its dark corners.  It is an ideal that is managed by people; and people make mistakes.

The IOC and the Olympic Movement - of which the United States Olympic Committee is a key, key member - do unseen, incredible positive work around the world every day in 204 countries – they really do, folks.  But that story is rarely told.

So consumers around the world see what others want them to they see (because the IOC and Movement are not managing their own narrative destinies) and, consumers often see want they want to see too, regardless of the facts.  Frankly, left with no alternative perspective, I understand their negative perceptions.  The cost of the Games, environmental damage, respecting human rights, etc.; how do these correlate with the Olympic ideals?

The Olympic Movement is comprised of 204 National Olympic Committees, 28 international summer sports federations and dozens and dozens of national summer federations; and 7 international winter sports federations and dozens of national winter federations.  Twelve Global IOC Sponsors, hundreds of other sponsors, rights holding broadcasters and other commercial partners help fund the Games and athletes around the world - and the Paralympic Movement as well.

It is a very, very fragile world; it is a wonder to me that the Games actually take place at all given the competing agendas and objectives around the Olympic table's limited resources.  But they do.

However, to remain relevant for the next 100 years (even though the Olympic Games are 3,000 years old, the modern Games have only been around since 1896), the next 10 years of President Bach’s presidency are perhaps the most important in Olympic history.

Time is of the essence because the Olympic Games are worth it.  The IOC is an amazing organization full of men and women (all volunteers by the way) charged with heady, important work. And they take it seriously.  And within them lies the answers to make the next 100 years a true “Golden Age” for the Movement.  Not an easy task nor one to address casually.  3,000 years of history is on the line.

My final point is, they need our support, respect and assistance.  Let's all pitch in; we all, however big or small, have a role to play in the Olympic Movement.

So, stay tuned.  A new day is coming I believe; it has to.