Brand Purpose and the Paralympic Games

For decades, the Paralympic movement has been one of the most powerful forces for inclusion and opportunity in all of sport. Today, as the Tokyo 2020 Games unfold in Japan, it is adapting to deliver on its mission in changing times.

The work of brands around the Paralympic Games has come to reflect this. The most obvious development is structural. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has had various formal agreements in place with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) since 2000, initially focused on ensuring that the host cities for both events were the same.

More recently, that collaboration has deepened. Broader partnerships were signed ahead of London 2012 before a landmark agreement in 2018 that guarantees IOC support for the Paralympics until 2032. The two organisations have been working together to build the visibility of the Paralympic brand and offer financial stability to the movement.

Dual Sponsorship Deals

The overlap is apparent in the list of Paralympic sponsors. Other than Otto Bock, a German manufacturer which is the official supplier and maintenance provider of prosthetics for Paralympians, all the IPC’s global partners also work with the IOC: Airbnb, Atos, Bridgestone, Panasonic, Samsung, Toyota and Visa. Taken together, that has ensured a high level of delivery and commercial support for the Games.

But the more interesting aspect of Paralympic marketing is how the messaging around the movement is progressing.

“From a pure marketing perspective, the Paralympic Games is the biggest challenge but also the biggest opportunity,” said Jane Jones, communications director at the British Paralympic Association, in a July interview with Marketing Week. “The Olympics is an established formula, but the Paralympic Games is growing and evolving.”

Campaigns around the Paralympics have long championed the efforts of para-athletes and the opportunities the Games provides. Human interest campaigns have centred, to often powerful effect, on the lifelong journeys Paralympians have made and their responses to extreme adversity.

Brands have also explored the identity of the Paralympics as an event where winning matters but sharing the stage is just as important, as evidenced by initiatives like the Paralympic Refugee Team. The IPC’s decision at its opening ceremony to fly the version of the Afghanistan flag opposed by the Taliban is an example of the moral courage that makes it so compelling.

Some companies are taking the opportunity to fold Paralympics support into their strategies to further corporate inclusivity. Bridgestone, for example, has made donations to organisations supporting athletes with disabilities around the world and has also used its partnership to underpin its brand positioning and internal action on fairer workplaces and more diverse media spaces.

Partnership Success

There is one IPC partner, however, that has transformed the expectations for what para-sport marketing can be. UK broadcaster Channel 4 turbo-charged established norms around Paralympic promotion with its electrifying ‘Super Humans’ creative ahead of London 2012, where it celebrated not just the fact that para-athletes were competing but the incredible ways in which they used their bodies.

That campaign and its follow-up for Rio 2016 won a catalogue of prestigious awards at events like Cannes Lions Festival. For Tokyo 2020, though, Channel 4 decided it had to build on that.

“What we’ve tried to do this time, is to move the focus from super to human,” explained Channel 4 chief marketing officer Zaid Al-Qassab, speaking to Campaign in July.

The Tokyo 2020 films work from the tagline: ‘To be a Paralympian, there’s got to be something wrong with you.’ As well as emphasising the extraordinary skill and commitment of elite para-athletes, they spotlight the petty annoyances and deeper challenges that come with being a person with a disability – all while retaining the hyperkinetic energy and humour of the earlier campaigns.

“That is all part of the change in the language and the tone and the film itself,” Al-Qassab added. “To make it about humanity. Yes, it’s about these people's dedication and sacrifice, but the fact that they're just getting on with life, too.

“The juxtaposition between being a Paralympic athlete at the peak of your powers and being unable to get in a cafe for a drink is pretty shocking. And tells the story in a very simple way.”

Meaningful Campaigns are the way forward

In the years ahead, the capacity of the most charismatic and empathetic para-athletes to pick up that story and relate their own experiences will only grow as social media expands access to audiences. On a sporting level, para-sports federations will be eager to create narratives that sustain the movement between Paralympics, and sponsors can have an enormous role to play in growing the visibility of the events that make that possible. At the same time, other initiatives will seek to improve the lives of those communities.

The IPC has partnered with a range of organisations, including the International Disability Alliance, Unesco and the Special Olympics, to launch a new campaign called WeThe15 that highlights the difficulties facing the 1.2 billion persons with a disability around the world and what they have already been able to achieve with the right support. WeThe15 describes itself as ‘the biggest coalition ever of international organisations from the world of sport, human rights, policy, communications, business, arts and entertainment’.

Its goals include a reframing of how people view disability, and to make it clear just how many of those who have a disability are invisible to society – either because of the barriers to their participation in daily life or because their disability goes unseen. IPC partners including Coca-Cola have shown their support for the project, which comes at a moment where brands are hoping to put purpose at the heart of their campaigns.

The challenge that WeThe15 lays out, to companies, sports bodies, governments and individuals, is an urgent one. It aims not just outlast these Paralympics but inspire decisions that change real-world experiences every day.