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.

16 thoughts on “The Olympic Brand Challenge

  1. So eloquently written. Such a mind opening information. Honestly it made me have more respect for the games as well as the fuel behind it.

  2. Excellent perspective, Terrence. Thanks for writing this examination of the threats to the Olympic brand. Just the kind of thought leadership the Olympic Movement needs. Keep on pushing. G

  3. A thoughtful piece which should be drummed into the Olympic movement throughout the world. Specifically, how the Movement is managed in Asia is the biggest threat to it’s future. We have the world looking to this part of the world for youth, leadership and commerce, but the Olympic Movement seems not to support the members, licensees and athletes in ways that ensures the security of it’s future.

  4. The IOC’s decreed that Russia ‘s policies on gays do not violate the Olympic Charter’s discrimination principles. It was a laughable declaration, clearly made in the interest of money. Whatever skepticism youth have at the corrupt old men who run the IOC, it is well deserved. The ideals and principles are beautiful and romantic. But they bear no resemblance to the reality. Athletes are commodities like puppies out of a mill, doing tricks for the corporate sponsors and the corrupt politicians who use the games for outrageous graft. Frankly they should be allowed to die. They have run their course and have bloated into a monster.

    1. I’m not ready to give up yet, Clarknt67…but I very much thank you for taking the time to respond…it shows you care deeply and are disappointed.

      1. You’re correct. I am disillusioned because as a kid I really was seduced by the ideals. I hope the committee can see the missteps they are making and correct course.

  5. Excellent, thought-provoking piece.

    This phrase stood out for me: “they need our support, respect and assistance”. Yes, they do NEED those things, but until the IOC provides a compelling reason why they DESERVE those things (or, until the untold stories are told, as you put it) who is going to take that leap of faith?

    1. If we, all of us love what the Games actually stand for, Mark, then I guess it is we who have to take that leap of faith. I’ve seen it both behind the curtain and in front of the curtain. I still believe. But that’s me. Thanks for writing – TB

  6. Terrence,
    This is a very insightful piece–not surprising coming from a person I respect so deeply on so many different levels. After you, me and our collective teams helped get the IOC back on track with our “Celebrate humanity” campaign, I pitched the IOC business again many years later. I had sensed that the IOC was losing focus (and its soul) again and I pitched them with more work that came straight from the heart. The leader of the IOC pitch team was some Norwegian guy who told me “Rob, your past work was beautiful and the work you’ve shared today is beautiful, but your agency is too small. The Olympics are big.” It was at this point that it was clear the Olympics and their members had once again become too big for their own britches. The campaign they ended up choosing came from a big international agency and the campaign stunk up a larger geometrical area than the international network that created it. In my opinion, the agency selection committee had failed in a bigger way than they will ever realize. In today’s world, marketing doesn’t just say who you are and what you do–it defines and directs your organization as to what it should to be…and what it strives to be. Put simply, it provides clear vision for others to follow. Once again, the Olympics have lost their vision. Terrence, you and Michael Payne played a massive role in helping them find it in 2000–they should be so fortunate as to have you help them again today.

    1. Thank you Rob and thank you for your brilliant work, all those years ago. Those spots still give me – and people around the world – goose bumps. It really illustrates the point that the human values espoused in sport at the Games remind us all of why we are similar rather than why we are different. There is a lot of work to be done going forward. As I wrote (somewhere) the Olympics are an “ideal” but it is managed by human beings…human beings are fallible. I still take the long view on it – and am not giving up on it. But, it has to adapt and change to the new realities. Big isn’t better. The Games should not be a national branding tool. And athletes are the single stakeholders that matter the most.

  7. As the professor who organizes the NYC-based program Terrence highlights in his blog, I concur with all points large and small about his most recent experience with my post-graduate business students, MBAs and Masters). My students and I have been most fortunate for nearly a decade to have Terrence deliver his thoughtful, unique and well-organized (quite frankly, “brilliant”) exposition of the evolution and current state of the Olympics brand, always with an eye towards what the future might hold for the world-wide Olympics movement. The analysis and insights he shares are consistently special and thought-provoking, and this year as he points out, more thought-provoking than usual. As a world-class global marketer, Terrence never fails to pick up on and listen to the tenor, tone and tension of his audience. What he heard last week was certainly different from past years. And, as a world-class thought leader, Terrence carefully considered what he heard, and he responded as he always does, in a direct and forthright manner, and not just in the classroom with my students where the discussion was lively and robust, but afterwards as well. Clearly the dynamic with my students last week gave him reason to pause and raised for him challenges to consider; his blog nicely points out his comments and concerns about the future of the Olympics movement. And no one has deeper insight or cares as deeply as Terrence about the future of the Olympics movement. Thank you Terrence for sharing your point of view, this year especially.

  8. Rich thanks so much for the very, very kind words. It is always a pleasure speaking to your students and as you and I both point out this year was different, in that they were so much more engaged with the Olympic brand and, unfortunately, what they perceived as conflicting reality versus the brand’s promise. We can’t afford to lose this generation… Thank you again and I look forward to seeing you again soon, Rich – TB

  9. Thanks Terrence, I was one of the the very fortunate non-US students in this particular session. Kudos to Prof Ettenson for nourishing this network and allowing us to feed from it. Coming from Ghana, the most striking revelation of the “Olympic business” was the fact that the movement and its brand, was losing out on the current generation and needs to reinvent itself to the realities of the current market place – Keeping true to the spirit of the brand and delivering relevancy across the globe. I watched Russian President Putin in an interview this morning on the BBC and it struck me how ‘they’ intend to stay true to the ideals of the games, whilst simultaneously dealing with all the negative human rights PR and security threats they are plagued with now, a few days to Sochi. Terrence brought to the fore, the very often ignored subtleties around the emotional component of the Olympic brand – Are lives made better off in host countries? or made worse? My personal view, which resonates with his is “It depends…”. That being said, I believe this brand has a better future, as I am convinced the personalities managing this identity are constantly learning from the recent histories, while hoping for a smooth event in Sochi and Rio.
    The most important thing is for the world to see more ‘Jesse Owens and Luz Long” moments – love and friendship.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *