Why sponsors have little awareness to show for their costly Olympic campaigns

If you’ve been following the Olympics on Channel 12 and NBC’s cable affiliates and don’t know who the sponsors are, don’t feel bad.

All one big blur

You’ve got lots of company.

Because according to a representative sample of 1,034 respondents to a Toluna Global Omnibus online survey, U.S. consumers on the whole don’t know any more than you do.

Only 7% could identify Cadbury as an Olympic sponsor, for example, only 17% UPS and British Air.

To make matters worse, a substantial proportion of consumers thinks some brands’ Olypmic advertising comes from their main competitors.

How else do you explain the fact that half as many respondents (19%) incorrectly identified Burger King as a sponsor instead of correctly naming McDonald’s (40%)?

Or that while 47% thought Coke was a sponsor (correctly), 28% thought it was rival Pepsi?

Or even worse than that, more consumers thought that Olympic advertising from Adidas was from arch-competitor Nike (24% vs 37%)?

Adding injury to insult, small majorities and a large plurality of consumers said the Olympic sponsorships made them feel more positive about the brands that weren’t being advertised in the telecast — 48% for Pepsi, 52% for Burger King and 54% for Nike.

It all comes down to dumb ads and smart competitors.

Dumb ads

“Best practices,” the 21st-Century expression that means “conventional wisdom,” says that if you’re advertising during a sportscast, the best way to hold viewers’ attention during commercial breaks is to make the commercials look and sound as much like the game, or race, as possible, on the not too flattering assumption that your target audience will be too naive to spot the difference.

So as advertisers play it safe by spending tens of millions of dollars following best practices, we have commercial after commercial showing multinational, multiethnic, multicultural, politically correct groups of athletes doing their stuff to an audio track extolling the benefits of health or exercise or whatever.

In such a blur of sameness, is it any wonder nothing stands out?

Smart competitors

When your main competitor’s advertising has given them ownership of the product category in consumers’ minds, that’s one high hurdle in your brand’s lane.

When they also start running a very evocative, ingratiating ambush campaign, that’s another.

Nike did both, and that’s why they outscored Adidas so badly.

Over the long term, Nike advertising has featured professional, well-known amateur and everyday, garden-variety athletes and built their message around glorifying the fact that they, uh, just do it. That’s hurdle number one. Two weeks of Olympic advertising can’t overcome it.

Over the short term, Nike created an ambush, almost anti-Olympics, campaign celebrating the democratization of athletics.

The campaign makes the point that “greatness isn’t reserved for the chosen few in one special city.” The establishing commercial shows athletes of all ages and abilities in London, Ohio; London, Norway; London, Ontario; Little London, Jamaica; Small London, Nigeria; East London, South Africa and other Londons throughout the world putting forth effort to find their greatness (which is the campaign’s theme).

Individual commercials go on to slice and dice the message by sport. One shows a 12-year-old jogger from London, Ohio. Another, a Little League baseball pitcher playing with no left hand. Others show skateboarding, high diving, gymnastics, soccer, water polo, wheelchair racing, and weightlifter, straining in closeup as he does his reps while the voice-over says that sometimes the precious metal that greatness is measured in is iron. (See them all here.)

Yeah, the campaign does have its required touches of political correctness here and there (as in the soccer commercial), but with the whole 30 seconds’ audio comprising one one-liner, it’s not heavy-handed. What it is, is consistenly engaging — and encouraging, to say the least, to its target audience.

“Best” practices or best practices

Now, not many local Richmond advertisers are about to start stockpiling their millions for sponsorships in the 2016 Olympics. But there are lessons to be learned from the 2012 sponsors’ mistakes.

First, don’t rely on an expensive burst in a high-profile media event to do what years of consistent, steady brand- and message-building should have done to help your brand own its category.

And second, “best” practices may feel safe because your advertising is in with the crowd, but that’s why it’s dangerous. You’re not just part of the crowd, you get lost in it.

Who’d your brand like to be in the Richmond marketplace — Adidas or Nike?