Five Sponsorship Stories to Watch for during Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games

February 8, 2018 11:26 am Published by Leave your thoughts

With Super Bowl LII in the rear-view mirror, tomorrow (bright and early) is the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games Opening Ceremonies.


While Twitter’s #BrandBowl experiment last weekend appeared to be a success – here at the T1 offices the excitement for one of the largest international sporting events in the world is palpable. While #Brandlympics isn’t likely to trend, brands and their agencies from across the world will invest heavily over the course of the next month in an attempt to be part of the conversation, and emotion, that surrounds any Olympic Games.


Here are five sponsorship stories to look for heading into the Olympic Winter Games in Korea this weekend.


  1. Ambush Marketing


With an event as massive and illustrious as an Olympic Games, and the price for affiliation with the rings soaring (becoming a four-year top-level partner of the International Olympic Committee is estimated to cost around $100 million, according to Reuters), brands are becoming more and more creative about how they can align with the sentiment generated by the Games without officially partnering with them.


Budweiser Canada, who, along with parent company Labatt Brewing Co., have been one of the central figures associated with ambush marketing surrounding the Olympic Games in Canada during the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, recently released a commercial with Canadian hockey stars Wayne Gretzky, Paul Henderson, Dale Hawerchuk, Tessa Bonhomme, and Geraldine Heaney celebrating a goal being scored. The ad is part of the release of Budweiser’s new Wayne Gretzky gold-synced lights and gold-synced light up glasses. The commercial which ends with “Bring it Home” doesn’t officially affiliate, or misrepresent affiliation with the NHL, the International Olympic Committee, Hockey Canada, or the Canadian Olympic Committee, and expressly says so in all of its commercials – but the alignment is very clear.


Lots of brands play in the grey space when it comes to ambush marketing the Olympic Games, there are dozens of examples each year. A famous example, during the London 2012 Olympic Summer Games, Nike released their “Find Your Greatness” commercial with athletes competing at places named London across the world.


Look out this year for advertisers without sponsorship affiliation to continue this trend into Pyeongchang 2018.



  1. The Impact of a ‘Loosened’ Rule 40


Sport is one of the largest benefactors of sponsorship contribution in Canada and on the planet. Tons of brands contribute to the effort and success of national athletes and teams across the country. Rule 40 is an Olympic rule which restricts an athlete’s ability to be affiliated with a brand who is not an Olympic sponsor, during the course of the Games. Specifically, the rule “preserves the unique nature of the Olympic Games by preventing over-commercialization” which means it protects Olympic sponsors who pay for their affiliation with the event.  Rule 40 is meant to prevent the ambush marketing mentioned in point 1 but also ensures athletes and their accomplishments are not used in advertising by non-Olympic sponsors over the course of the Games. This means terms like “gold, Games, Olympic, Olympiad, and Medal” are all off limits to brands.


If you are an athlete who for 4 years of the Olympic cycle is sponsored by an athletic apparel company who isn’t an Olympic sponsor, when you achieve your dream of winning a medal, traditionally, you couldn’t thank your sponsor, and they couldn’t acknowledge their support of your accomplishments to accommodate Rule 40. There are good reasons this rule is in place: Olympic sponsors spend a ton of money on that affiliation, and brands have gotten exceptionally good at sidestepping Rule 40.


However, in the lead up to London 2012, social media was hit by a tidal wave of non-Olympic sponsored content and athletes thanking their non-Olympic sponsors on the eve of Rule 40 kicking in to protect Games time, generating #Rule40 and #WeDemandChange calls-for-action popping up on athlete feeds across Twitter and Instagram. As a result, the IOC loosened up Rule 40 immediately before Rio 2016 and for the first-time other sponsors could be acknowledged as long as no Olympic intellectual property was included, and athletes submitted their non-sponsor brands in advance.


Now in its second Olympic Games, the impact of the loosened Rule 40, and the continuation of spectators consuming more and more behind the scenes footage of the Games courtesy of athletes’ and teams’ social media – it will be interesting to see if the number of brands taking advantage of their athlete endorsements during the Games.



  1. 12-hour time difference


During the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games, 199 million Americans (68% of the TV watching population in the US) watched at least 1 minute of coverage for Sochi 2014 and 33.4 million Canadians (96% of the TV watching population) watched at least 1 minute of coverage for Sochi. As a critical element of sponsorship success for the Games, there is certainly a fear that the time (and distance) between North America and the Games does take away from the sentiment North Americans feel towards the athletes competing from their home country.


Broadcast plays a significant role in athlete endorsements for Olympians (who see their sponsorship value increase significantly during the Games) but with athletes a world away, a number of sources are reporting that Canadian athlete endorsements are down significantly.


While there are a number of factors you can blame a decrease in sponsorship investment on here in Canada, the two key ones are the time change (the live competition happening in the early hours of the morning) and…



  1. No NHL Hockey Players


Gary Bettman has been debating the merits and challenges of NHL players attending the Olympic Winter Games for almost all of his 25 years as Commissioner of the League. The NHL decided in spring 2017 that they won’t be attending the Olympic Winter Games this year.


While it’s too late to debate all the reasons NHL players should or should not be present – the sponsorship implications of NHL participation are significant. As mentioned above, we’re already seeing the fallout from that decision on Olympic-related sponsorship activity in Canada. Specifically, an assumption can be made that athletes who would most certainly be leveraged as the face of sponsorship campaigns here in Canada, as a nation followed their men’s hockey team’s quest for gold, are no longer available as the spokespeople for brands. Where a brand may have leveraged a single NHL all-star representing their country at the Games to build a platform that may have included other athlete endorsements, we aren’t seeing the same sponsorship money being funneled into the sport system for these Games.


We’ll wait post-Games to see if some of the brand dollars we typically see invested on athlete endorsements pre-Games will funnel down to the non-NHL men’s national team, or an exceptionally deserving and well-followed women’s national team, or other Canadian Olympians. Or, if the brands’ sponsorship interest will continue to wane for Canadian Winter Olympians following the Games.



  1. McDonald’s No Longer an Olympic Sponsor


This is the first Games following McDonald’s and the IOC’s decision to end its partnership three years early. During Sochi 2014, McDonald’s (and Visa) topped brand recall surveys for sponsors of the Olympic Winter Games with 81% of Canadians able to recall at least one IOC sponsor. While McDonald’s remains a domestic sponsor of the Games, the decision in summer of 2017 has challenged brands and agencies across the globe to think critically about the price for sponsorship of the Olympic Games.


While reports have rumored that McDonald’s investment in the last quadrennial could have been anywhere from $100 million to a billion dollars – the IOC has had success in replenishing their list of international sponsors in the lead up to three Asia-based Games. Specifically, Toyota (internationally and in Canada) and e-commerce retail giant Alibaba have begun/expanded their participation with the Games.


We’re looking forward to seeing what campaigns and activations these new partners have planned!


There are tons of other things to look forward to at this year’s Games: Will the “Olympic Athletes from Russia” competing under an assumed flag impact brand participation in Europe? Will HBC and their uniforms continue to dominate Canadian apparel during the Games? How many Visa spots will Morgan Freeman narrate? Which brand will dominate the Olympic conversation?


We’ll be keeping our eyes peeled, our jerseys on, and our alarm clocks set. Bring on Pyeongchang 2018 and the #Brandlympics.

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This post was written by Krissy Murphy, Consultant

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