Athlete marketing from Champions to Olympians

The Olympics are about the taking part but, historically, winning played a big role in the typical brand marketing campaign for the Games.

Heading into each event, brands have aligned themselves, above all, with champions and those pushing for gold. Home favourites and national icons offered a similar hook.

Those athletes offer a measure of certainty, with household names guaranteed significant local or even global coverage – provided injury or a surprise failure to qualify do not intervene. They have tended to front activities that have been many months or even years in the planning. These have been defined, too, by the limited capacity of linear media inventory.

Being part of the story

There has been some scope to be reactive when a new star or cult hero has emerged over the course of an Olympic fortnight. More often than not, however, this approach has meant a long lead-in for sponsors to the next edition, and a small window for athletes to capitalise – not least if their sport gets limited coverage away from the Games.

In recent years, though, several brands have shown an appetite for other parts of Olympians’ stories that resonate deeply with fans. Since its debut ahead of Vancouver 2010, Procter & Gamble’s celebrated ‘Thank You, Mom’ campaign has championed those who support elite athletes in pursuing their goals, no matter how close they come. That shift in messaging has recognised that becoming an Olympian is an achievement in itself, demanding sacrifice not just from those competing but family and loved ones as well.

In the digital age, the bandwidth to carry more and different Olympic stories is growing all the time. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) itself has facilitated this by massively expanding access to live coverage through its Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) arm, and then by establishing its multi-platform Olympic Channel to carry localised content between Games on a whole range of devices. But the principal acceleration has come through much bigger trends, with social media chief among them.

The Influencer Economy

More than ever, athletes are able to relay their own journeys to groups of fans who relate powerfully to them. That is felt not only in terms of their sporting fortunes but the lifestyle, training and dietary choices they make. The influencer economy presents huge opportunities even for athletes in what are mostly thought of as niche Olympic sports – particularly given the desire of endemic brands and manufacturers to reach specialist audiences – and can have an amplifying effect for individual disciplines and the whole movement if harnessed correctly.

Athletes have lobbied with some success for a liberalisation of the IOC’s Rule 40, which limits certain promotional activities for the duration of the Games itself. That decision now lies with individual national Olympic committees, a number of which have given their athletes more grace to explore new avenues with brands. That may be only the start, however, as Olympians seek more ways of giving fans access to life inside the Games and monetising that through partnerships.

The IOC’s own sponsors are beginning to appreciate the value of building networks in this way. Accommodation hub Airbnb has supported the provision of official athlete experiences, allowing Olympians the chance to show fans a part of their home city, or market an Olympic-themed lesson, while sharing the revenues. Those experiences have been taken online during the pandemic but as public health restrictions ease, they carry the promise of localised Olympic events with personalised athlete input in every part of the world.

The power of the digital age

Outside the Olympics, sportspeople have come to understand the potential of digital communities through gaming and shared streams on platforms like Twitch. The possibilities of connected fitness, with athletes offering insight or inspiration for fans testing themselves on platforms like Peloton and Strava, are almost self-explanatory. While the Olympic movement’s relationship with esports is very much at an embryonic stage, the launch of the Olympic Virtual Series – which has licensed digital competition in a number of Olympic sports for the first time – signals a move towards that space.

For technologically focused partners like Intel and Alibaba, digital community creation will be fundamental to the future Olympic ecosystem. For athletes and their sponsors, the chance to bring like-minded fans under the Olympic banner could be transformational.

Much of this remains a matter of negotiation between the IOC, its partners and the athlete body, and the development of some of these initiatives could be more than one Olympiad away from maturity. Nevertheless, it is becoming ever easier to tell the story of each and every Olympian, and the implications of that could revitalise the whole movement.