Olympic Ads Won't Win Any Medals, but Marketers Should Take Note

Shaun White of United States during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics Men's Snowboard Halfpipe final Photograph by Vladimir Rys/Getty Images

I am always on alert for ways my MBA students can gain fresh insight into advertising strategy. Compared with the hype that surrounds Super Bowl ads—and the sublime teachable moment they provide—Olympic advertising is understated to the point of being forgettable. Yet I look at the Olympics as another lesson in how to create exceptional, breakthrough, or even oddball advertising.

For two high-profile athletic broadcasts airing roughly a week apart, the Olympic Games and the Super Bowl feature ads with very different approaches to winning viewers over. The Olympics are a widely watched spectacle, but ads during the events don’t have the same bravado (or wackiness) as those during the Super Bowl. Brands still invest heavily to attach their names to the games, but they typically refrain from getting too edgy (with some recent exceptions).

The contrast shows just how carefully advertising strategy is tailored to the nature of public events. The Super Bowl takes place on one evening where everyone gathers to watch the event and the commercials. The Olympic Games, by contrast, are spread over weeks, consisting of a variety of events. Some are more popular than others, but the notion that a captive audience of 110 million-plus will see them all is as likely as me winning a medal in anything.

And while we’re being honest: How many water cooler conversations do you have with colleagues over which Olympic ad made you laugh so hard tears ran down your cheeks?

That brings us to lesson one for students: Savvy brands realize the Olympics carry with them a particular zeitgeist that colors consumer sentiment. Ads that are inspirational and heartfelt, playing up the human spirit and achievement, are more likely to be remembered, even if they are unlikely to generate water cooler chatter.

Once students grasp the importance of tone, they can begin to appreciate another lesson: Multiple events mean that consumers can be exposed to the same ad a number of times. If the consumer does not get the message in a Super Bowl ad, the brand may be in trouble, especially given the other great ads that evening. But during the Olympics, if the consumer misses the message on the first attempt, there’s always the second attempt, the third, and often many more. When it comes to ads, repetition is to the Olympics what creativity is to the Super Bowl.

Another takeaway for students is it’s not always about what you see on TV. For some brands, the most important marketing opportunity may be the chance to use the Olympic rings on their product package. In some categories, consumers make spontaneous purchases based on how they are feeling or what catches their eye. Seeing a brand supporting the Olympics with the rings emblazoned on the packaging, or a full-on display in the grocery store, can help the brand stand out in a way it cannot during the regular year.

A final point worth mentioning is on how brands use social media around the Olympics. The Olympics should generate considerable talk based on surprise victories, individual medalist performances, and accumulation of medals by countries. Put simply, there is a lot to say about the games on a given day. Brands have an opportunity to engage consumers. How they do it is something worth keeping an eye on.

This year the Olympics should be enjoyed for the athleticism and human feats they showcase. As for the advertising, don’t expect too many gold medal performances. Instead, I tell my students to evaluate how well a brand delivers its message over the course of the event—on TV, in stores, and on its Twitter feed.

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