Olympic Sponsors May Rethink Marketing to Reflect Current Events After Delay of Summer Games

P&G and Visa will evolve their strategies with the postponement

image of Olympic diver into pool with Visa logo
Visa is one of many Olympic sponsors that is postponing its plans until next year. Getty Images
Headshot of Diana Pearl

Key insights:

When it comes to major marketing events, it doesn’t get much bigger than the Olympics. Though Super Bowl spots may run at a higher price, for major Olympic sponsors, the event offers 16 days of constant opportunity to communicate with consumers.

Olympic marketing plans are years in the making; oftentimes the beginning stages of planning for the upcoming games take place just after the latest has wrapped. As Jason Cieslak, the president, Pacific Rim at brand strategy firm Siegel+Gale, put it: “This is a big bet for any brand,” adding, “And it’s a global bet. They spend a lot of money and do a lot of prep.”

For their part, sponsors appear to be taking the move to postpone the Summer Olympics in stride. Corporate statements from Visa, Intel, Bridgestone and P&G, all major Olympic sponsors, commended the decision to postpone the games in Tokyo until 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic. Visa committed to “work with the IOC, the Tokyo Organizing Committee (TOCOG), the government of Japan and our partners in the coming months to make the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 as memorable in 2021 as they would have been this year,” while P&G said they’ll be “working on how to adjust our plans accordingly.”

Bridgestone said that in terms of how marketing plans will be affected, it’s too early to tell.

“There are still many details that need to be decided regarding the new plan for Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020,” a statement from a company spokesperson read. “We will maintain regular contact with the IOC and Games organizers in the coming weeks to get the latest updates as they work through this complex situation, and we will continue to work collaboratively with all of our partners to adjust our activities and identify creative solutions, as necessary.”

Brands don’t pay for their air time unless it actually runs, so in a financial sense, major Olympic sponsors are saved from the worst of the effects of the postponement. (Those are reserved for networks like NBC and parent Comcast, who won’t be receiving their expected ad revenue.) And as the games are postponed, not canceled, there’s an argument to be made that the effort put into Olympic campaigns so far may not have been a waste—particularly for those that have not yet been revealed. (Many Olympic campaigns are still under wraps, though some, like SK-II’s “No Competition”-themed campaign, were unveiled a few weeks ago.)

However, what the world’s mood will be come 2021 is still yet to be determined, and after a global pandemic has wreaked havoc on people’s lives, the sentiments that would have resonated in a coronavirus-free 2020, as the Olympics were originally intended for, may not hit the same mark in a post-pandemic world.

“A lot of the creative could become outdated immediately,” warned Rob Prazmark, the president and CEO of 21 Marketing, a sports and entertainment marketing company.

That shift may present greater opportunities in advertising, with a greater focus on international unity, or the added adversity that athletes have had to overcome in their training. These new stories could be the foundation of some of the most talked-about campaigns of the 2021 Olympics.

“The fact that some of these stories have Olympians around the world on how they’re going to have to adjust their training to be ready for a year from now is a great story,” said Prazmark. “There’s so much heightened awareness around moving the games, that’s an opportunity for Olympic sponsors to really harness some of that public affection for what these athletes have to go through.”

Brands that are particularly vulnerable to the news aren’t the ones that Americans are most familiar with, but instead the Japanese brands that have made deep investments in the Olympics, with the hope of using the event as a moment to reintroduce themselves to the global market, according to Cieslak. After several years of a stagnant Japanese economy, the hope was that the Olympics would present an opportunity to jump-start things once again.

“A lot of Japanese businesses and brands are going to get hammered by the delay,” he said. “They’re going to have to wait another year to reintroduce Japan to pay into the world, and the circumstances will be very different.”

Considering the global nature of the coronavirus pandemic, Cieslak predicts that the messaging around the Olympics therefore will end up being more international in nature—focusing on the world coming together, rather than on one particular nation.

For the American Olympic brand partners, the postponement ultimately means a change in plans, and undoubtedly several headaches, but the delay offers the promise of a games that are even more compelling than usual.

“The Olympic games being pushed into 2021 will become a beacon for the world,” said Prazmark. “The world came together to fight this virus and now the world is coming together to celebrate humanity.”

That’s great news for marketers, and in particular, Olympic brand partners. The Olympics are already one of the top buys in advertising today—after all, in a world where there’s more to watch than ever, events that can predictably guarantee millions of viewers for an extended period of time are a gold mine for marketers. And with the crisis, more people may be tuning in to cheer on athletes who have experienced even greater adversity.

“I’m optimistic,” Cieslak said. ‘There’ll be a big scramble and some short-term pain, but I think the long-term gain, it’s going to be tremendous.”

@dianapearl_ diana.pearl@adweek.com Diana is the brand marketing editor at Adweek and managing editor of Brandweek.