The 'un-marketing' of the Olympics and how brands can do better next time

The 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang were a marketing fail, says Organic's VP of client services.

My trip to the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics was tiring but exciting. Flying into Incheon airport, after a 14-hour haul from SFO, I immediately started looking for Olympics promos but was surprised to find no sign of the iconic rings in sight. To my right, a fresh-faced young Korean man marketed a casino and to my left, I noticed an informational installation about Korean culture. Strange, I thought.

Now, this wasn’t my first time in Incheon airport. After having previously lived in Korea for over two years and judging by my passport stamps, this is probably my thirtieth Incheon arrival—except nothing stood out this time. It did not seem as though Korea was hosting one of the largest, most exciting international sporting events at all. This was a marketing fail that required a dissection; the lessons I gleaned from the lack of brand presence should serve as a lesson for our industry at future industry events.

Noticeably absent promotions
My first stop in Korea was Seoul, South Korea’s capital city, home to some 10 million people. During the hour-long cab ride into the city, I didn’t see a single billboard promoting the Olympics. Wasn’t Samsung a sponsor of the Olympics? In Korea, everything from hospitals to apartment complexes are owned and branded with Samsung. It’s hard to turn your head and not spot a Samsung logo, but as far as my eye could see, there were no Samsung advertisements that incorporated an Olympic logo.

After a few nights in Seoul, I headed to PyeongChang. Getting there requires hard-to-book tickets on another two-hour train ride east. (When the Olympics committee decides on a location, you have to wonder if they factor accessibility into the mix.)

Upon exiting PyeongChang station, the Olympics signage finally made its appearance. There were large Olympic rings installations ready for photo opportunities, bouncing mascots waving you over for a high five, but still—no sponsor signage. Across the street from the station were large tents. Every advertiser would expect that this must have included brand experiences; yet they would be mistaken, because the only thing these circus-sized tents included were Korean cultural shops and entertainment. I listened to modern Korean rock bands, learned to make tea properly and ate tons of free traditional Korean food samples. During my entire Olympics experience, the only promotional product I was given was free ramen from KT 5G (a local cellphone carrier promoting their 5G service). Now, as much as I love ramen, this felt like a huge missed opportunity for brands and sponsors.

Putting the pieces together
There’s a part of me that appreciated having a brand-free Olympic experience—being at the games and having all my attention focused on the actual sporting events was refreshing. The marketing side of me, however, wondered why that element was missing?

The longer I stayed at the Olympics, the more I realized that these sponsors knew something that I didn’t: there weren’t enough potential consumers in attendance to warrant investment. Lines to get into events were non-existent, entire sections were empty in the crowds and ticket sales for any event were still available five minutes before they started. Walking around the Olympic complex seemed like a ghost town. When strong winds sent a tiger mascot statue sailing across a vacant walkway right in front of me, I had to look both ways to make sure I, in fact, wasn’t being pranked.

Several news outlets from the New York Times to regional publications had commented on the empty seats. Attributions range from the freezing weather to the time difference, proximity to North Korea and the location’s relative obscurity. Whatever the reason was, if you asked executives at Coke, P&G and Visa, they knew it a long time ago.

Where are the ad dollars going?
Now, we all know advertisers spend less on the winter Olympics than the summer Olympics, but PyeongChang was like night and day compared with the Rio Summer Olympics. In Brazil, there were freely flowing Coca-Cola products, sprawling brand experience zones and "Thank You, Mom" billboards as far as the eye could see. Sponsored parties and events happened daily, and if you weren’t seated on Copacabana in a sponsored chair/towel/sarong, you were doing something wrong. In PyeonyChang, you were lucky to find a cab home.

It is also known that advertisers have been cutting back their TV spends due to an overall change in viewer consumption habits. Fewer people are watching TV, so spend has been moved over to social and streaming. This Olympics, it has been reported that advertisers across the board are cutting back in comparison to the last winter Olympics in Sochi, with GE reporting 10 percent less and AT&T reporting 30 percent less in investments. 

It wasn’t surprising to hear about lower online and TV spend. What was surprising to me was that the declining spend trend has also crossed into the physical Olympics. While it may not have been the most attended Olympics, there was a prime opportunity here for brands to make a splash: the event attracts visitors traveling from afar (i.e., those with disposable income) who have time to explore an Olympic village (guaranteed consumer interaction) during an international sporting event (the ultimate flexing of a brand’s creative muscle)—and yet, there was nothing to experience or save for future consumption.

Going for gold
With the next winter Olympics being in Beijing, one of the world’s largest cities, it will be interesting to see how brands approach their onsite presence. Will it follow the declining forecast of lower interest in the Olympics? Or will a different location be all the Olympics needs for a boost?

For me, no matter the spend forecasts, attendance figures or remoteness of location, I will forever watch and support the Olympics. I, for one, can’t wait to go to Beijing. For any advertisers reading this: know that to win the next winter Olympics, the bar is set at ramen. Game on.

Laura Kaye is VP, Client Services at Organic.

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