When the Olympic Games Study Commission met in Mexico back in 2002 to review the strength of the Olympic brand and the impact of the recent 2000 Sydney Games, the Commission’s executive must have struggled not to glow with pride. Seven million tickets had been sold for the event and a TV audience of 3.7 billion had tuned in from across the world to enjoy the Games. The Olympic brand had never been in ruder health and, equally importantly, the Sydney Games had also enjoyed fanatical support from the Australian populace. Professor Gordon Waitt who conducted a significant study of the impact of the Games on the local population concluded, not without reason, that “euphoria” was the best word to describe its societal impact. The Times of London went even further challenging their readers to “suggest a more successful event anywhere in the peacetime history of mankind”. A story that the Olympic Commission proudly included in their final review.
Those with fond memories of Sydney would do well to lower their expectations for the London games now only a few weeks away. The success of 2000 is unlikely to be repeated in 2012. To understand why there will be such a contrast in fortunes between the two events you needed to be at London’s Southend airport just over a year ago. There, on a windy runway, local girl and former Olympian Sally Gunnell was taking part in a photo-shoot for budget airline EasyJet and their soon to be launched London Southend service.
At the bidding of the photographer, Gunnell was asked to raise a large Union Jack flag above her shoulders. But, just as she was about to comply, a figure from the background stepped into shot.
The individual in question was one of LOCOG’s (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games) marketing team. Keen to avoid the heavy penalties for inappropriate Olympic promotions by non-sponsors that had recently been voted into British law, EasyJet had invited a LOCOG executive to observe proceedings. And their guest was not happy.
Raising the national flag over her shoulders was deemed to be too reminiscent of Gunnell’s triumphant gesture after winning the 1992 400m Hurdles Olympic Gold for Great Britain in Barcelona. The photoshoot was halted, the Union Jack removed and Gunnell forced to change from her white tracksuit deemed too reminiscent of the British national strip and into a more acceptable orange T-shirt.
The brand police had arrived.
Since that overcast day last year their activities have grown in both frequency and ridiculousness. A butcher in Weymouth has been told to remove his display of sausages in the shape of the Olympic rings. A small village in Surrey has been stopped from running an “Olympicnic” on its village green. Pub landlords have been warned they cannot advertise that the Olympics are being televised inside. Athletes have been forbidden from tweeting about brands. Last week a "flaming torch breakfast baguette" being offered at a café in Plymouth to celebrate the arrival of the Olympic torch was outlawed by the brand protection team. In a bizarre touch, staff will even scour the bathrooms of all the Olympic venues and remove or cover the logos of all non-sponsored brands that appear inside the bathrooms.
I am not sure what LOCOG calls this approach. But I can assure them that it has nothing whatsoever to do with brand management.
It certainly has nothing to do with the Olympic brand - at least the original one that existed before it was bastardised by big corporations and international bureaucrats. The original Olympic brand was founded on a belief of freedom of expression and the triumph of the individual. Jesse Owens showing Hitler that a black man was anything but inferior to his Aryan competition in 1936. Dick Fosbury setting an Olympic record in the high jump by inventing a completely jumping technique in 1968. Usain Bolt’s impromptu victory dance in 2008. This is the Olympic spirit: creative, disruptive, free. How do we square that with a bureaucrat regulating local sausage displays?
It also has nothing to do with the British ‘brand’. Ask any of the international visitors to the 2012 Olympics about the British identity and they will talk to you about eccentricity, humour and non-conformity. Look at the UK's Olympic heroes. Take Daley Thompson, who won Gold in the Decathlon with a smile and a very British sense of humour. How about Eddie the Eagle? Which other country would count a man like that among their Olympians? How will the British public reconcile their cultural identity with an officious man with a clipboard telling one of their greatest athletes she does not have permission to raise her own flag? When did the London Olympics devolve into stopping its people from flying the Union Jack?
Shouldn’t LOCOG be encouraging engagement with 2012 and driving public co-creation with the event, rather than eliminating it?
Their maniacal focus on logo fascism has ensured that LOCOG has completely missed the bigger branding picture. This was meant to be the “people’s games”. This was supposed to be a celebration of London and what it means to be British. This could have been as big for London, as it was for Sydney. But all that has been lost in a sea of clipboards, regulations and brand policing.
LOCOG have made the most basic branding error of all. They have focused all their efforts on identity at the expense of equity. Who cares whether there is an Armitage Shanks logo on a urinal in the Olympic Village? I’d be more concerned with ensuring that the spirit of the Olympian movement and the fundamental greatness of British culture are projected to the rest of the world.
And LOCOG have sacrificed all this for what? A recent poll in the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported a survey that confirmed Nike was the brand most associated with London 2012 – even though they are not a sponsor. Meanwhile, according to Ipsos, official sponsors like Samsung, adidas and British Airways struggle to achieve 5% unaided association with the Games despite spending hundreds of millions for the privilege.
If you need proof of how badly LOCOG have failed to manage the 2012 brand just take a look at how the British people and most of its media are alienated from their own Olympics. As noted commentator A.A.Gill told the New York Times last month, “the British people have collectively, osmotically, decided that we hate the Olympics”. Hardly the Sydney spirit from 2000.
It would be easy to resort to cultural stereotypes and explain all this with the usual “whinging pom” clichés. But in truth, it is the brand and not the market that is to blame. The London Olympics are a brand that has been ruined by a total misconception of what brand management really means. The feeble and untrained marketer believes that branding is fundamentally an end in itself. They do branding by protecting the logos and fonts and achieving that most dire of all aspirations – the “consistent look and feel”.
But this is not branding. Logo control and the fascism of font management are poor substitutes for proper brand management. Just look at London 2012 – despite (or rather because of) an incredibly well controlled approach to logos and fonts and a very consistent look and feel, many of the people that were meant to enjoy and participate in the event feel excluded and unenthusiastic instead.
The real meat of brand management is brand equity. Rather than focus on fonts and logos and all the other superficial crap that does not matter – real marketers turn their attention to what our consumers think of us and attempt to engender the right associations among the right target consumers at the right time. In London’s case that should have meant embracing the positioning of the “people’s games” and the British spirit of humour and eccentricity. The brand police are, ironically, just about the most inconsistent and damaging thing that LOCOG could have done.
So take heed and learn from the mistakes of LOCOG. The next time you find yourself reminding everyone of the right font to use or having an argument with your boss because he is using the wrong powerpoint template locate the nearest window and throw yourself out of it. This is not branding. It's exactly the opposite.
Professor Mark Ritson is a consultant to some of the world’s biggest brands. He teaches brand management at Melbourne Business School and on the AMI’s Masterclass program.
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