Sunday, 29 July 2012

Olympics 1, Sponsors 0

As I write this, the opening weekend of the London 2012 Olympics is drawing to a damp but optimistic close. And although there have been a few early disappointments in the cycling and swimming categories, the former did at least enable us to bag our first medal of the games. Looking back over the last 48 hours, it’d be hard to argue that the Olympics have been anything but a triumph. In spite of all the media fear-mongering, it all seems to have gone off without a hitch - even our creaking tube network has managed to hold itself together admirably.

And yet, despite enough sighs of relief to keep a squadron of Mary Poppinses airborne, I can’t quite shake the nagging feeling that something’s rotten in the state of the Olympic Park. Check out the pictures of this weekend’s sporting activity, and tell me if you’ve ever seen such a phenomenal showcase of tip-up seats. Row after row of glorious up-turned squabs in eye-watering high-def. Sturdy plastic back supports, so clear you could almost touch them. Or sit on them for that matter, since no-one else seems to be.

Welcome to London 2012, the most-watched sporting event in the world, unless you happen to be in one of our purpose built stadia.  In which case, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d got tickets to The Voice Live Tour. Of course, I’m being facetious. These untipped seats aren’t a sign of public disinterest in the games. Instead, they’re a mocking reminder of how LOCOG has dropped to its knees in front of its corporate sponsors, like one of Christian Grey’s BDSM subs.

We’d all listened to Lord Coe staunchly defend the sponsors’ heavy-handed activity as merely protecting their investment, even though his argument induced enough nationwide eye-rolling to send Moorfields into a panic. We laughed at the ridiculousness of McDonald’s banning the provision of chips within the Olympic village, as though they’d retroactively copyrighted the very concept of chopping and frying potatoes. We shook our heads in dismay at rumours that visitors wearing Nike sportswear might be turned away at the gate for fear of upsetting Adidas’ delicate sensibilities. And if the Thames seems darker than usual, it’s probably because millions of people have decided to tip out their Pepsi bottles, rather than incur the wrath of Coca-Cola if they were to be seen drinking the wrong carbonated syrup.

Those not fully indoctrinated in the terminology of sponsorship activation were given a swift education in the concept of ambush marketing – the idea of spontaneously promoting an authorised brand during a media-saturated activity. In the ongoing war for brand dominance, innocent members of the sport-watching public were being swiftly rebadged as potential enemy combatants. Fuck the terrorist threat – those surface-to-air missiles on top of the flats at the end of my street could take out a Reebok-wearing jogger with ruthless precision.

Once upon a time, sponsorship was a neat way of plastering your brand all over a sporting event, ensuring that your logo was always in shot. There was little strategy involved in selecting a platform, aside from asking the CEO about his favourite team. And then something changed. The brand and marketing teams got involved, and tried to ensure that sponsorship packages could be neatly aligned with the corporate goals and values. This meant that the way consumers perceived a brand’s involvement also changed. Brands were no longer sitting up in their VIP area, chucking back their Moet and waving at the plebs from behind the velvet rope. They were right there in the mosh pit, or standing on the kop. Shoulder to shoulder with the masses, and discovering a shared interest: “Hey, fancy meeting you here! What’s that, you love the Arctic Monkeys? How funny, we here at Admiral Insurance also enjoy their rough-edged rockiness. Now, can we interest you in a fully comprehensive policy?”

As ridiculous as that may sound, the strategy actually works. In principle, today’s definition of sponsorship is about engagement and empathy, rather than brand bukakke. Showing consumers that you’re interested in the same things as them, and building a long-term relationship based on mutual understanding. Or at least, that’s what it’s supposed to be about.

Someone obviously forgot to point that out to the tier one sponsors at London 2012. Given how difficult most of us found it to get hold of tickets, not to mention the prohibitive pricing for many of the events, the sponsors might have wanted to show a little more enthusiasm for the games, rather than spending all their time eradicating any trace of the competition. According to the Guardian, the men’s basketball this weekend saw 70% of the lower tier seating – allocated to sponsors and officials – go unused. Likewise, the pictures from the gymnastics made the O2 look so unpopulated that it seemed those Mayan prophecies had come true after all. So much for ‘We’re as excited about the games as you are.’ This was more a case of ‘We’ve got so many tickets to get through, we just couldn’t be arsed to show up.’ Tweeting pictures of the half-empty stands inside the aquatics centre, even Louise Mensch was disgusted. And let’s face it – when you find yourself on the same page as Louise, something’s clearly gone very wrong.

No doubt the marketing strategy teams will be crunching numbers for the foreseeable future to determine the impact of sponsorship on their brand approval ratings. I just hope they’re not too disappointed if they see a sharp downturn in their fortunes, rather than the upswing they’re surely expecting. In the rush to leverage their investment, the top tier sponsors have forgotten why they got involved in the first place, and the meaning of the word ‘participate’. This isn’t sponsorship, it’s dictatorship. And like all totalitarian regimes, they’re heading for a bloody rebellion. 

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