"We identified, along with the Olympic committees, that there was a need for game-change in the Olympics: moving it from being about nations, to being about people"

The Olympic Games 2012, opening tomorrow in London, is expected to attract millions of eyeballs.

For the first time in the Games’ history, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) and the London Organising Committee of the Olympics and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) decided to brand the major event and entrusted the task to global branding consultancy firm Wolff Olins. The Olympics gameplan is expected to attract business worth $8-10 billion in 17 days.

Amul, the top brand in the Asia-Pacific region with a Rs 12,000-crore turnover, is sponsoring the Indian contingent to the Games.

Business Line caught up with Mr Charles Wright, Director, and Mr Ije Nwokorie, Managing Director, Wolff Olins, to know their views on different aspects of the branding exercise. Excerpts from a telephone-cum-email interview:

Branding is usually done to draw attention to a new product or revive interest in an existing one. This is the first time a well-known event like the Olympic Games is being branded. What aspects of the event have the potential to draw attention, when highlighted?  

Wolff Olins: The story of the London 2012 brand actually begins before the brief - with an ambitious bid, delivered to the IOC, by Lord Sebastian Coe (in Singapore in 2005). This successful bid led to the creation of an equally ambitious brief from LOCOG. 

As part of London’s bid to host the Olympic Games, Lord Sebastian Coe said to the International Organising Committee: “To make an Olympic champion takes millions of young people around the world to be inspired to choose an Olympic sport. In the past, London and the Olympic Movement have come together when there were serious challenges to be faced... Today, London is ready to join you in facing a new challenge. And, provide another enduring sporting legacy. Today’s challenge is tough. It’s more complex. We can no longer take it for granted that young people will choose sport. Some may lack the facilities. Or the coaches and role models to teach them. Others, in an age of 24-hour entertainment and instant fame, may simply lack the desire. We are determined that the London Games will address that challenge. 

During the pitch, we proposed a step-change for the Olympic movement. That was moving the Olympics from being about nations, to being about people; from being about the two weeks of the Games to being about every day; being about sport, to being about more than sport; from being about watching, to being about doing; from being for people over 35, to being for people of all ages; from being about the TV to being about the street; and from being about elite athletes to being about every one.

Why do you think branding of the Olympics is necessary? 

Brand is about purpose – it’s about what an entity does (not what it says) and how people experience that entity. In this sense, the Olympics is absolutely right for branding. We identified, along with the IOC and LOGOG, that there was a need for game-change in the Olympics: moving it from being about nations, to being about people. The Olympics needed to have a presence beyond the games – and for that reason needed to be branded.  

Do you think this is how the Games could be sold globally in a better way? 

May be. But what was right for London 2012 may not be right for another city with a different agenda and different challenges. One size fits none. 

If so, to what extent could this branding/marketing exercise translate into business for sponsors? Particularly when International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge has admitted, as media reports suggest, that there is a question mark over the sponsorship of the Games by McDonald's and Coke over concerns related to obesity. 

Sports sponsorship is now a big business. Some very shrewd firms are investing substantial amounts. Their motives may include a splash of philanthropy but I suspect their analysts have done the arithmetic and decided this is a cost-effective way of getting their name in the public eye.

Recent estimates suggest the London 2012 is getting some £1 billion in sponsorship. 

We are proud of the way that the 2012 brand is designed to work alongside sponsors’ brands, and they seem happy with the results as well. But we had no role in the selection of sponsors so can’t really comment on that. 

Do you think the Committee decided upon this branding exercise to revive/boost the people's interest, especially in the wake of the economic recession in Europe and elsewhere? 

LOCOG and Wolff Olins shared an ambitious idea about making the Olympics for the people – off the podium onto the streets, out of the television and into people’s hands. We also knew that this Olympics was not about putting London on the map (in the way that other Olympics have been).

What is the level of awareness worldwide about the Olympics? 

The Olympics is a globally recognised brand. Research just released said it’s the second most valuable brand in the world behind Apple.

Is the Olympics, as an event, your key focus while branding, or "Olympics in London", and why? 

The key focus for these Games was about young people, about more than sport and about everyone, everywhere. We understood that the Olympics needed to be beyond sport, beyond London, and beyond the games. If Olympics was to have an existence beyond the Games then it needed a brand. That brand would be 2012 and the form 2012 would have meaning and relevance independent of the Olympics.

Market research with children and adolescents told us that the brand language needed to be urban as opposed to municipal; it had to belong to the streets as opposed to an institution. This language had to be rooted in something. We wanted to return to the meaning of Olympism – energy. So we created an energy line grid. From this the brand language and the 2012 mark emerged.  

While branding the Games, do you think the existing global awareness about it is a boon or a challenge for you? 

Oscar Wilde answered a similar question more than a century ago when he observed, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”. That said, the fact that the Olympics has such a high public profile also means that many people have strong opinions on the subject. As we saw in the excitement which greeted the launch of the new brand.  

What is the current image of the Olympics in the minds of people worldwide? Some even see in the Games a political angle. Would this branding encourage emerging economies such as Brazil and India (from the BRICS) to hold the Games? 

The idea that the Games can be a brand, that is, that it can stand for something and have positive impact should be an encouragement for any city to want to host them.  

What kind of an enduring image are you looking forward to create through branding? 

Our work is about creating game-changing brands with positive impact. The London 2012 brand is a clear example of this kind of work. We created a step- change in the Games and that change was about democratisation. Taking the Games out of the hands of the elite and giving them back to the people. 

How do you think branding of Olympics is different from that of branding and marketing of similar events like FIFA or the World Cup Cricket? 

I’m English and, therefore, brought up to be partial to cricket. But I would concede that the Games’ favour with my compatriots fluctuates with the fortunes of our Test side.

With all respect to the cricket-playing nations of the rest of the world, cricket may be a less attractive sport to an international audience than soccer. Witness, the fact that some 700 million people watched the 2010 FIFA world Cup Final... 

But the Olympics has the potential to trump both FIFA and cricket in terms of global appeal. Two small examples illustrate my point. First, I recently passed through the Dubai Airport and saw a delightful exhibition celebrating the UAE’s entries to the 2012 Paralympics. Second, NBC of America has just announced that it will show 5,635 hours of coverage for the Olympics this summer. An increase of more than 2,000 hours over the Beijing Games. 

It is the global scale of the Olympics that makes it different and special. 

On a wider scale, how is the branding of a sports event different from that of FMCG or other products/services which are usually branded? 

Branding started off with what we know as FMCG. The first registered trademark dates from the 19th century when Bass, the brewer, sought to protect the distinctive red triangle it displayed on its bottles. A triangle intended to persuade often illiterate customers that the product was safe to drink. 

At this simple level, much of the branding we see of products and services today is somewhat similar: trying to persuade wary customers of a particular benefit they can enjoy. 

London 2012 is different in kind. Not least because of the large number of audiences that the event touches; there is no consumer in the sense that an FMCG brand would address.  

What kind of challenges did you anticipate when you took up this event?

We anticipated that the brand would be controversial when it launched. At Wolff Olins, we are proud of our work. Because we do game-changing work, it often proves controversial at launch. We deliver ambitious work for ambitious clients and we are proud of what we deliver.

Do you think branding of the Olympics would encourage organisers of other global events, like G-8 or G-20, too, to do a similar exercise? 

Hosting events like the Olympics or the G8 is a familiar means of building a nation’s international profile. Britain did something similar with the 1851 Great Exhibition, China did it with the 2008 Olympics. Hosting the G-8 or WEF is not so different.  

The specifics of the London 2012 branding would not be applicable to most aspiring hosts, because London 2012 is not about celebrating the city or the country. But the success of London 2012 could indeed influence organisers of other global events to do more than a logo and a press release. And we would be delighted to help them!

(This article was published on July 26, 2012)
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