Olympic Glory and Shame

August 19, 2008


There is one thing for sure, nothing is for sure when it comes to the Olympics. The Olympics is a place where even the best laid plans can collapse in under a tenth of a second, by the whim of a judge or by a nagging injury.

Like its sporting counterpart, Olympic marketing is an expensive gamble that sometimes pays off big but many times doesn’t at all. For all the happy faces going home with gold around their necks there are many more heads hanging low. The Olympics are a winner takes all competition, where second place is no place because winning silver really means losing gold.

But as the old saying goes, you can’t win it if you aren’t in it. For mass marketing giants like Coca-Cola, Nike, McDonalds and Visa the opportunity to be an Olympic sponsor is too valuable not to take a chance on and too important to let a competitor get a hold of. So who won marketing gold? And was it smarts, money or luck that made the difference? Read on to see.

Phelps medals  

After Michael Phelps stunning sports perfection of 8 gold medals in 8 events, it would seem so easy to plan an Olympic marketing success. Find an athlete destined for gold medal glory and then pay them handsomely to endorse your product. Launch a massive marketing campaign tying the athlete, your brand and the host country to a powerful message to increase brand awareness and loyalty.

But just like competing in an Olympic event, it is easier said than done. I always thought badminton was a nice leisurely sport but after watching the women’s final where two Chinese athletes swatted the birdie to near extinction, you realize the Olympics takes everything to the extreme and that includes marketing.

Michael Phelps became at sensation at the 2004 Athens games winning six gold medals but there was nothing to guarantee that he could even duplicate that in Beijing let alone break the Spitz record. In fact, after a 2005 drinking and driving guilty plea you might have assumed sponsoring him could be rather risky.


Liu Xiang also became a sensation at the 2004 Athens games where he became the first Chinese man to win an Olympic gold medal in track and field. Liu quickly became the most celebrated and sponsored athlete in China. And Lui’s event, the 110-meter hurdles, was the most highly anticipated event at the Beijing games. Some fanatic fans even believed the Bird’s Nest stadium was built with Lui in mind as the place where he would defend his title and win gold in front of the home crowd.

For China, Liu is like Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan wrapped up into one pretty package. A young, handsome, charismatic athlete who overnight won the heart of a nation and gained the interest of sponsors worldwide. No Chinese athlete has been marketed more aggressively or more successfully than Lui. Nike, Coca-Cola and Visa are all major sponsors of Lui and have invested millions in endorsement contracts and promotions centering on him. His face is plastered everywhere in China currently. And had Lui won gold at the birds nest, it would have been high fives all around.

Liu down

But while team Phelps experienced the extreme high of Olympic glory. Team Lui experienced the extreme low of Olympic shame. Sadly Lui limped off the field Monday unable to even compete in his qualifying heat ending the dream for him, his fans, his country and his sponsors.


The games aren’t over yet, but the biggest win certainly goes to Michael Phelps and Speedo. The combination of Phelps’s record breaking medal count along with Speedo’s revolutionary new suit the “LZR” racer which dominated in the pool (nearly every gold medal swimmer wore one) meant a one-two knockout punch for the brand. Speedo’s $1 million dollar bonus paid to Phelps for winning 7 gold medals was money well spent for all the extra favorable PR Phelps, the LZR and swimming received.


In fact, Speedo originally had planned on a major advertising campaign last fall to introduce its new LZR suits, but wisely held off betting on major buzz coming off the Olympics. With Phelps and his 8 gold medals as the spokesperson now is the time to spend heavily on marketing. (It is just too bad summer and swim season is over. Maybe Speedo can ask to have the Olympics moved to May?)

Speedo first signed Phelps when he was 16 years old. In 2003, they signed him to his current deal which included the million dollar bonus and runs through 2009. Signing with an athlete before they are famous and staying with them along the ride is the key to long-term endorsement success. Jumping on the Phelps bandwagon now looks disingenuous on Phelps part and the companies.

Phelps and his agent need to resist the temptation to cash in quick on his fame. Too many endorsements for too many products will undermine his most valuable asset his honesty. Phelps promoting Rayovac batteries, for example, would be just as horrible for him as it was for Michael Jordan.

I actually cringe at the possible endorsement deals he might do? Can you think of any funny ones he should avoid?