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Sorting Out The Olympics Marketing Quandary

Crain's Chicago Business, August 13, 2012

By Danny Ecker

I had three big takeaways from this Olympics:

  1. "Fantasy Olympics" is a glorious way to watch the games (Update: I finished in third place out of 10 teams thanks to Missy Franklin's four golds and a bronze, and Russian synchronized swimmer Natalia Ischenko's two golds, though the South Korean men's archery team really held me back).
  2. Michael Phelps' mom (whose spotlight-grabbing will not be missed by this sports fan) looks more like Liza Minnelli each year.
  3. Thanks to social media, the way we watch the games has changed for good and for the better.

The last one has major implications on the marketing side of things, as sponsors, athletes and the International Olympic Committee scramble to set ground rules in the new "social games" era.

The IOC has to sort out some issues with its "Rule 40," which essentially outlaws any athletes mentioning their personal sponsors on Facebook, Twitter or other social outlets for about a month surrounding the games. (Those that don't comply could face fines, removal of Olympic accreditation and possibly even disqualification).

That's one way the committee tries to protect its 11 global partners (including McDonald's), which spend about $100 million for rights to dominate every bit of Olympic commercialism and potentially three times as much on top of that to activate their rights through advertising.

But considering the gobs of cash that is made on athletes' backs, muzzling their ability to promote themselves and those they endorse is hard to justify.

I spoke Monday morning with IEG Senior Vice President Jim Andrews about this very topic.

"The consumer doesn't care if you're protecting corporations" Mr. Andrews said. "But if you're being unfair to athletes, that's when people start to care."

Mickey D's performance

Ads for the Golden Arches during the last fortnight came up short of expectations, according to Mr. Andrews, who was surprised at their particularly "promotional" nature.

"They haven't really tapped into the goodwill and emotion around the Olympics. I'm not sure why they got away from that this time," he says, citing Procter & Gamble Co.'s "Thank you, mom" campaign and various social efforts from Coca-Cola Co. as the most effective.

The primary television spots for Oak Brook-based McDonald's, which has sponsored every Olympics since 1976 and has an agreement through 2020, involved American boxer Marlen Esparza getting coaching tips from a sandwich-eating customer. Another effort featured a series "average Joes" around the world in various one-on-one competitions, capped off with a few words from LeBron James and Luol Deng.

"You could do the same ads around the NFL or a concert. There's nothing special about that," Mr. Andrews said.