After last year’s cancellation, the Tokyo Olympics will finally start in less than two weeks, bringing together competitors from across the globe for a celebration of sport. However, COVID-19 continues to disrupt plans: Last week, organizers announced there will be no fans in the stands.
For athletic companies, the Olympics are typically a tentpole moment to engage with millions of fans and viewers, but this past year brought forth an unprecedented change of strategy and adjusted expectations. Brands have been forced to pivot quickly amid deep uncertainty.
Marc Beckman, founder and CEO of advertising agency DMA United, noted that as of last summer, the outlook was unclear whether the world would be in a position to host such a global celebration.
“A year ago, the idea of a brand activating in an international way like the Olympics, at an event where historically, the stories are the individual athletes would really come to light, I would have been very bearish — now I think it’s the opposite. The spirit of community coming together to overcome obstacles is there in storytelling,” he said.
Indeed many brands have embraced a macro focus on their athletes in their marketing, as opposed to planning a robust activation over the course of this past year.
In part, that could be because brands don’t have as many product stories to tell: Many opted to release their Olympics merchandise in 2020 rather than hold it for an event that might not go on. For instance, Asics — a gold partner of the Tokyo Games — released its “Multi Crossing” collection last summer, consisting of sneakers and sandals for adults and kids that all feature “Tokyo 2020” branding.
But the hurdles that athletes faced this past year also provide rich storytelling for advertisers. Lacoste, for instance, the official sponsor of the French National Team, pivoted in this direction.
“It’s obvious we had to adapt with the postponement, but it’s the athletes [lives] in this unexpected situation that have been the most complicated,” said Catherine Spindler, chief brand officer of Lacoste. “They have to prepare again, stay focused on that goal, that lifelong dream. The tenacity of the athletes is a strong value that we also have here at Lacoste.”
Inspiring stories are also emerging now from the Olympic trials. New Balance has been celebrating partner Sydney McLaughlin, who broke a world record last month in the 400m hurdles. And Athleta is blanketing its social feeds with all things Simone Biles, since the gymnast made the U.S. team for the second time.
Others brands have been leveraging their resources to support their Tokyo-hopeful athletes along the way. For instance, the Reebok Boston Track Club has been a beacon for team members who have been training for the Olympic Games.
Kristin Fortin, global marketing director at Reebok, explained, “One of the ways we wanted to get back into running is through Reebok Boston Track Club. They are all individual runners, but we brought them together as our elite professional club, which is why they all live in Charlottesville, Va. We want to support them through making strides in a holistic, well-rounded manner. Because they can play off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses to help each other through the process and learning through diverse skillsets.”
Though Reebok is not an official sponsor and is not preparing any activations — in accordance with IOC guidelines — the brand provides behind-the-scenes support to athletes. “Essentially, we want to be there for them when they need us,” said Fortin. “They have questions about going. They’ve never traveled that far and done things at this level. It goes beyond being a partner and more so a part of our family.”
For Lacoste, the year-long delay for the games was stressful for the brand and its athletes, but presented positives as well. “The creation of the assets was quite challenging in this context, but it was an opportunity to create a bond between our athletes at a time when they needed it,” said Spindler.
And Fortin, who is a 20-year veteran of Reebok and has seen her fair share of sporting event activations, concluded that the focus for this Olympic Games should be squarely on the athletes. “It’s about them. It’s their time to shine, it’s not about Reebok,” she said. “It’s their achieving moment and we just want to ensure we are supporting them and allow them to share their stories.”