Business Today
Case study: Branding strategies deployed at the 2012 Games in London

The case study also highlights how often unorthodox approaches of non-sponsor brands managed to steal the show through innovative use of social media and public relation campaigns at the 2012 Games in London.

Hijacker Brands win the Socialympics
Executive Summary: How is it possible that Nike is thought to be an official sponsor of the London Olympics by more Americans than those who believe it was Adidas? Why are there armies of athletes wearing Beats by Dr Dre headphones on the track (and tweeting about it), despite the brand not being a sponsor? And why did some large sponsors run into trouble? McDonald's, for example, was publicly criticised and had to justify the appropriateness of a high-calorie brand sponsoring the Olympics. This case study examines the branding strategies deployed at the 2012 Games in London and highlights how often unorthodox approaches of non-sponsor brands managed to steal the show through innovative use of social media and public relations campaigns.

Historically, the Olympic Games have been an ideal forum for brands looking to strengthen their global presence. Companies have paid hefty sums for the privilege of being associated with the Games, convinced that no other event in the world offers the unique combination of mass worldwide exposure and fostering of positive values. However, this golden rule of marketing seems to have been turned upside down at the last Olympic Games held in London in 2012.

There is evidence that, in spite of the financial effort, not all corporate sponsorships were as beneficial as expected. Moreover, beyond the heavy investments, brands from the fast-food industry or those adopting monopolistic practices landed in hot water after they failed to justify their association with an event synonymous with health and fair play. And often, it was non-sponsor brands that made headlines, thanks to their innovative campaigns.

To some extent, it is a story about numbers: in 2012, Facebook had 10 times more accounts than in 2008, while Twitter was 300 times bigger than it was at the time of the Beijing Olympics. But, more importantly, social media usage at the 2012 Olympics was at the heart of the Games, a place to comment, share, buy, complain and much more.

In an unexpected turn of events, some of the most visible endorsements of the 2012 Olympics were not delivered by official sponsors. More than a handful of brands managed to attain high levels of global exposure without paying large sponsorship fees through unofficial links with the event.


The success of non-sponsor campaigns is more surprising with London setting strict rules to protect sponsors and prevent ambush tactics. Brands that were not official sponsors could not use ads featuring Olympians during the event, could not mention the London Games explicitly or use imagery related to the Olympic rings.

Amongst the forbidden combinations of words were even generic ones such as 'London 2012', 'summer 2012', 'medals 2012' or 'games 2012. Moreover, Olympics staff were not allowed to wear T-shirts with non-official sponsors. In some cases, nonetheless, the punishment was not clear. Athletes were prohibited from taking part in advertising campaigns during the Games; however, it appeared unlikely a social media offender would suffer severe consequences, as stripping winners of their medals or blocking someone from competing would have been regarded as excessive punishment for tweeting.

If Social Media Olympics had been in place, the medal winners would have likely been:

Gold Medal: Nike

Nike ran an independent campaign called 'Find your greatness' which featured ordinary people and former Olympians engaged in various sport activities in a number of cities around the world, all called London. The Olympic Games host was not included. Nike broadcast videos with heartstrings-pulling personal greatness stories, and continued the conversation on social media.

Nike smartly ensured that more than 3,000 athletes wore Nike footwear, with viral social media presence amplifying its benefits. Although Adidas was the key sportswear sponsor, Nike managed to not break strict Olympic rules by cleverly getting athletes to put on and take off the logo when off /on the tracks. Nike gear was primarily worn around the village and during medal ceremonies.

Silver Medal: Beats by Dr Dre
Beats by Dr Dre used a different strategy and distributed headphones to star athletes for free. The brand tapped into an established habit, with athletes often using headphones to help stay focused and protect them from the noise of cheering crowds. As the brand had gained fame for its coolness, Olympians were quick to adopt them, with many prominent athletes walking out wearing the Dr Dre headphones. Athletes engaged in Twitter conversations not only promoting the brand but also criticising the Olympic Committee for its harsh rules on the branding of the Games.

This unusual move generated much hype that boosted the fortunes of the brand. During the Olympics, retailer John Lewis reported a 116 per cent increase in sales for Dr Dre while competitor headphone sales improved by just 19 per cent. Crucially, this marketing tactic gave Beats by Dr Dre access to a much broader market than its core American youngsters.

It cleverly managed not to violate the rules by first giving out the headphones for free. Additionally, it made the Olympic Committee's own rules work for the brand: IOC does not interfere with athletes' warm-ups, making it inappropriate for them to force Olympians to remove headphones.

Bronze Medal: Subway
The Subway chain had an exclusive fast-food endorsement with swimmer Michael Phelps since 2008 and heavily advertised the association before the Olympics. The perseverance paid off for Subway: it made an early connection with sport and that over time helped position the brand as a healthier alternative to competitor McDonald's. Subway was also one of the few companies to stand by Phelps after the publication of a photo of the swimmer smoking marijuana, showing a forgiveness that was appreciated in social media. Kellogg's stopped featuring Phelps on its cereal packs after the incident.

Following IOC guidelines, Subway featured its association with Phelps before and after the Games, but not during. Thanks to the long-standing campaign, by the time the Games started, Subway was already profoundly associated with the Olympics. Additionally, its absence during the actual Games meant it was McDonald's that had to defend the fast-food industry and its relationship with a sporting event.

Subway has utilised Phelps to help create a positive buzz about the brand in social media. Before the Olympics, Phelps had close to 300,000 followers on Twitter. By simply sending out a punchy, 140-character tweet saying he was enjoying a Subway sandwich, he helped the brand's image and sales.

At the 2012 Olympics, some brands made it while others didn't. So how is it possible that some brands start with a tweet and become very popular, while others spend millions only to be overwhelmed by criticism?

What makes social media attractive also makes it dangerous: everyone is invited but nobody is in control. Social media offers ordinary people the ability to own discussions, shape a vision, and be an active part of defining and spreading a message.

At the 2012 Games, brands that successfully navigated the young rules of social media achieved one or more of the following:

Resonate: With Find Your Greatness, Nike told the story of normal people, allowed them to have a central role in the initiative and offered them a platform to construct and deliver their message.

Surprise: For Adidas, it was not the well-constructed TV ad that drove most views on YouTube, but David Beckham's appearance at Westfield that took fans at the Adidas Olympics photo booth by surprise.

Help: Beats by Dr Dre appealed to athletes' need for cool headphones. It fuelled a conversation on the ground, showing its understanding of the fact that the most powerful messages are bred by people's presence and involvement.

Delight: With 86,000 people engaged with its Home Advantage hashtag on Twitter, British Airways managed one of the highest sponsorship awareness levels among top sponsors. Experiential projects like Park Live and Great Britons pop-up in Shoreditch in east London, aptly amplified in social media, helped the airline reach a broader, younger audience during the Olympics.

It is not just the success stories that provide guidance for future sponsorships, there is also a lot to be learnt from tactics that did not fare particularly well. Social media participants have no qualms about rejecting propositions that are considered inappropriate, lack value or are too commercial. The broader learning points, therefore, are:

Make sure you belong: McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Cadbury's were high-paying companies, but had to spend time justifying their role as the appropriateness of high-calorie brands sponsoring the Olympics was challenged by several British organisations.

Be generous, not selfish: Ethical principles and behaviour are now heavily scrutinised. In social media, and even more so in the context of the Olympics values, brands are expected to be fair and at least accept, if not promote, healthy competition. Highly visible sponsor Visa received unfavourable media coverage, with the brand considered 'cynical' for banning rival cards from the Olympics. Visa had to invest a lot of resources on a damage-limitation exercise.

Money is not everything (anymore): It is now common knowledge that communication is no longer about pushing a message down people's throats. Controlling advertising space with significant financial means is unlikely to be as effective as it was in previous decades. Stories of small David-type brands winning in social media in the face of large budget Goliath-type organisations are becoming ubiquitous.


Social media are a lot cheaper than sponsoring sports events but the downside is that nobody owns them: Jan-Benedict E.M. Steenkamp

 One-off events can be easily "hijacked"

Managers often wonder whether the huge amounts of money spent on sports sponsoring is worth it. On the one hand, sports events reach audiences unheard of in today‚??s fragmented media landscape. Brands also gain prestige through their psychological association with a sports event or team. Undeniably, Emirates Airlines has benefitted tremendously from its long-time association with the famous football club Arsenal FC and Samsung from being the shirt sponsor of Chelsea FC. The benefits from events like the Olympic Games are less clear. Sponsorship of such events may sometimes backfire (who associates a Big Mac with athletic achievement?), and even benefit competing brands. The case shows that one-off events can be easily ‚??hijacked‚?? while Singapore Airlines cannot ‚??hijack‚?? Arsenal.

What lessons does this present to global brands? How should they treat the unique opportunities offered by global events like the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Championship? First, you do not necessarily have to spend more, just spend it more cleverly. Set up a hijack team and develop a strategy for each event, starting with the 2014 FIFA World Championship and the 2016 Olympic Games. Build and leverage associations with globally recognised stars. Second, help these sports stars build likes and followers. Third, work on improving the transparency of your brand. Social media are a lot cheaper than sponsoring sports events but the downside is that nobody owns them. Fourth, hijacking sports events is not only for Western brands with deep pockets. They can also be used by emerging market companies to push their brands in their home markets and the global market at large.

Jan-Benedict E.M. Steenkamp, C. Knox Massey Distinguished Professor of Marketing & Marketing Area Chair, Kenan-Flagler Business School, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Sponsorship can no longer be a one-off attempt to associate with an event or brand for a halo effect: Nina Bibby

'Power of brands comes from their authenticity'
The London 2012 Olympics were dubbed the first social Olympics because of the power of social media channels surrounding the Games. In many cases, social media provided the means for the so-called hijacker brands to steal the show from actual sponsors. From Danny Boyle's opening ceremony, the view of the 2012 Olympics was micro versus macro: England was portrayed not in a broad sweep, but through a mosaic of touchstones which together add up to national history and pride. As such, the power of brands such as Nike and Beats by Dre came from their authenticity. They connected with people not in spite of being non-sponsors, but almost because they were non-sponsors. People appreciated that behind these brands were leading products which did not require the high cost of sponsorship for their value to shine through.

Does this mean we need to reconsider the entire role of sponsorship as a marketing medium? Not necessarily, but consumers are increasingly aware of the potential for brands to manufacture associations which may not be consistent. Subway's consistent support for Phelps before the Games, even through his difficult period, shone through as an authentic relationship, one which consumers recognised.

All these examples demonstrate that with the advent of social media, sponsorship can no longer be a one-off attempt to associate with an event or brand for a halo effect. Instead, to be successful, the relationship must appear authentic, consistent and real.

Nina Bibby, Chief Marketing Officer at Barclaycard

(This case study is from the Aditya Birla India Centre of London Business School.)
Get latest news & live updates on the go on your phone with our News App. Download The Business Today news app on your device
More from LBS Case Study