Marketing

Lessons from London

VIDYA RAM | Updated on March 12, 2018

Sanjay Verma, a Bhopal survivor and campaigner for the Bhopal MedicalAppeal, at the main vantage point of the London Olympics stadium. _ VIDYA RAM

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When Dow Chemicals decided to associate with the Olympic Games by becoming one of its so-called TOP (The Olympic Partner) sponsors what it certainly didn't have in mind was the sight large groups of tourists and students were greeted with last week. From a grassy, popular vantage point overlooking the stadium, a group of protestors from the Bhopal Medical Appeal (BMA) unfurled a large banner with painful, powerful images of victims from the horrific events of 1984 and its aftermath. The event was the latest in a series that anti-Dow campaign groups have organised around the Olympics.

Dow is putting a brave face on it all but it's clear that its association with the Olympics has been quite the PR disaster, reviving issues it thought it had largely relegated to history. The BMA says support for its campaign has never been greater in Britain, and the US-based Holmes Report put Dow fifth on its list of the Top 10 PR crises of 2011, pointing to the dangerous impact that Dow's failure to recognise the moral dimension of the criticism and appearing “perilously detached” was having on its image.

Other sponsors are facing flak too. Greenwash Gold – a campaign to highlight and protest the environmental and human rights record of BP, Rio Tinto and Dow has gained much attention within the British press. The group promises to continue the campaign against dodgy sponsorship deals at future Olympics. Meanwhile, Adidas, the official sportswear provider, is facing scrutiny about allegations that some of its gear was being made in “sweat shop conditions in Indonesia”, revealed The Independent. The Olympic Games – with the ethical spirit they're meant to embody and the world's attention focused on them – have often been used by campaigners to highlight apparent inconsistencies, yet what appears to be happening in London is a far more concerted effort to create a protest point. Could that make an increasing number of companies, weighing the pros and cons of being involved in the Olympics, decide against?

“Some controversial sponsors may not wish to use the Olympics as it gives the detractors a large platform to oppose them,” says Professor Nirmalya Kumar, director of marketing at London Business School. But he believes this will be the minority and that firms will continue to weigh the costs – financial and otherwise – and conclude it was “still a good deal.”

Yet others question the straightforward benefits of Olympic association. Hans Mathias Thjømøe, an associate professor of marketing at the Norwegian Business School who specialises in sponsorship, believes that relative to other sporting events, those bankrolling the Olympics have far fewer opportunities to flaunt their brand, particularly during the course of the Games themselves. Unlike most football games, for example, no logos can be displayed within the stadiums themselves during the Games, so brand gains largely lie with pre-game associations – advertising campaigns, the logos on a can of Diet Coke, a Facebook campaign. And while the IOC and local Olympic organising committees rigorously police attempts at so-called ambush marketing, they only really succeed at tackling the most blatant attempts to free-ride on the Games (at the moment British TV at least is awash with adverts clearly attempting to latch onto a feel-good sporty spirit).

“Many ask the question could I have taken it and spent it on something and got a better return on my money? It's a competitive situation and there are many other games in town,” says Mark Ritson, associate professor of branding at Melbourne Business School. Combine a questionable level of relative returns with the risk of adverse publicity – or by extension having one's name associated with a Games that is being tarnished by the reputation of other controversial sponsors – and there could be a lot of firms that will think twice in the future, he argues.

The outcome? Perversely, a rise in more controversial sponsors, who are less concerned with short-term returns on investment and keener on being associated with the values the Olympics are meant to embody, he argues. Dow's could be the rule rather than the exception, as could BP, the “sustainability partner” of the London Games. “The companies that do go in for sponsorship in the future will mostly be those with reputational damage they're looking to clean up, seeking validation that they are a proper ethical brand,” says Ritson.

However, it's not just the sponsors that may learn a thing or two. The Games' organisers may also see a lesson. In London there's been a perceptible lack of public enthusiasm about the Games – something Ritson at least partly attributes to the militant zealousness with which the organisers have gone about policing the games - including the use of the logo and brand. (There are bizarre examples, such as that of a lone butcher who was forced to take down a sign above his shop of the five rings made out of sausages.) Far from the laidback affair one might have expected it's being organised to the nth degree in a way even Beijing wasn't. “Good brand management involves encouraging interaction, co-creation and involvement and these are things they have failed to do … British people are increasingly alienated from the Games.”

A little over a 100 years since the Games were launched in their modern form, it's clear there's still a long learning curve for everyone.

Getting on the Olympics brandwagon

From the lofty to the wacky, the London Olympics is associated with a range of brands. Would giving them a title read like these?

Official Sustainability Partner: BP

Official toothbrush: Oral B Professional Care 500 Electronic Toothbrush

Official exercise machine: Adidas Olympic Workout Bench

Official carrier: Adidas Olympic backpack

Official board game: London 2012 Monopoly

Official jewellery: Links of London team Great Britain Olympic Bracelet

Official snoopers: Nikon 10 X 25 Binoculars 2012 edition

Official memory card: Panasonic London 2012 Olympic 8GB Memory Card

Published on May 02, 2012

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