Smith Brain Trust / July 29, 2021

Marketing Lessons Learned from the Tokyo Olympics

Marketing Lessons Learned from the Tokyo Olympics

Watching a gathering of world-class athletes compete at the highest level has always been the main draw at the Olympic Games. But the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games are vastly different from the Olympic Games of the past due to the everpresent gremlin of pressure. It has certainly reared its ugly head at these games and has forced marketers to be nimble and adjust their promotional campaigns accordingly, says Maryland Smith’s Henry C. Boyd III.

A year removed from its intended start, the Tokyo Olympics are taking place under unprecedented circumstances. And embracing the unexpected has been the recurring theme.

“Everyone wants each Olympic Games to be the best yet, and for the International Olympic Committee, it seeks the most viewership possible. The sponsors, themselves, meanwhile, are under pressure to strike the right tone,” says Boyd, clinical professor of marketing at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. “In these Olympic Games, we’ve also seen that pressure manifest itself in many ways, reaching even some of the most elite athletes like Simone Biles.”

Last year’s postponement technically marked the fourth cancellation of the Games – the prior three incidents occurred in 1916, 1940, and 1944 which coincided with World War I and World War II. But this year’s Games is plagued by uncertainty amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

The IOC, however, forged ahead to prevent the loss of billions of dollars in broadcast and sponsorship income. That decision, Boyd says, while made with an abundance of caution, still came at a major cost.

Not only were tourists and spectators barred from Olympic events, but dissent among the Japanese public has grown as the country grapples with a rise in COVID-19 cases ‒ a daily record of 2,848 new infections was set in Tokyo on Tuesday.

The backlash has taken a toll on major sponsors like Toyota, Boyd says. The automaker recently announced its decision to cease domestic advertising given the public sentiment within Japan, but said it would continue airing advertisements in other markets.

“To just get through these Olympic Games will be an accomplishment for everyone involved,” says Boyd. “It’s no easy undertaking by any stretch and to see sponsors like Toyota pull ads in that fashion and disassociate to an extent is certainly not a great sign.”

Brands that opted for more athlete-centric marketing campaigns have also been kept on their toes, Boyd says. One important perspective that both fans and brands have gained this year is the understanding of the sheer amount of weight and pressure the athletes face, he says.

Seeing U.S. gymnast Simone Biles pull out of competition for mental health concerns is telling of the expectations athletes of her caliber endure, Boyd says. For her sake, it was important to step away, he says.

“Hearing that the face of gymnastics is pulling out of competition must have been a gut punch to the networks,” says Boyd. “The timing from the outside seems particularly harsh, but that’s the nature of sports and it will have an effect on viewership. It’s up to the marketers to figure out how to take things from here.

“I suspect that savvy marketers will create new narratives which applaud mental toughness and the ability to overcome a disappointing loss. Case in point, Katie Ledecky, an odds on favorite, got silver in the 400-meter freestyle and placed fifth in the 200-meter freestyle but her cognitive reserve kicked in to win gold in the 1500-meter freestyle. The comeback is a timeless narrative that brands can easily rally around, says Boyd”

It’s paramount, Boyd says, for Olympic athletes to leverage their moment in the spotlight, especially for those whose sports peak in popularity during the Games. Yet with the intensity borne from the interplay of social media, interviews and endorsements, there must be a balance so that athletes and brands both experience success.

“These athletes have currency during this specific moment in time and they have to take advantage of it while they can,” says Boyd. “While the 2020 Olympic Games are still in full swing, I think that in their aftermath we will have learned how better to deal with the stress and pressure confronted by athletes. This understanding will hopefully help athletes in the future.”

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