Over the past eight years, international and domestic viewership of the Olympic Games has sharply declined, and the delay of the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games has all but guaranteed the continuation of this trend.
Onsite activation presence in the host city of Tokyo will be nonexistent, and, just the other week after declaring a new COVID-19 state of emergency, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government decided to ban spectators from the 2020 Olympic Games altogether. This comes after a ban on foreign fans in March 2021. As with professional sports, many Olympic athletes feed off the energy of the crowd, and sport psychologist experts say that spectator noise positively impacts athletic performance. With no fans in the seats, will we see an underwhelming presentation driving down viewers tuning in at home?
While broadcast rights holders are bullish on ratings potential for this year’s Summer Games, brands will need to work harder and smarter to make sure people are paying attention to their activations. Particularly in the U.S., audiences have a much greater chance at being distracted from the virtual events, with much-anticipated live events, vacations, and other activities on the summer docket for many. Brands, then, must consider how best to reach potentially distracted consumers and create narratives that connect with viewers in an emotionally compelling way.
Despite this greater uncertainty heading into these Games,14 worldwide Olympic partners including Airbnb, Coca-Cola, Dow, GE, Intel, Proctor & Gamble, Toyota, and Visa, have doled out hefty sums, spending at least twice as much in sponsorships than previous games. Some are even adjusting their media plans, a mere three days before Friday’s opening ceremony. For the gamble to pay off, brands activating around the Olympics must elevate emotionally captivating stories throughout the games. Previous strategies of visibility alone will not cut it this year.
On top of the declining viewership and the ban on in-person spectators, Rule 40 adds a layer of complexity for non-sponsor brands. A bylaw in the Olympic Charter introduced by the International Olympic Committee in 1991, Rule 40 prevents brands that are not official sponsors from referencing Olympic-related terms, including athlete partnerships, and enforces a blackout period that begins nine days before the opening ceremony, and ends more than three days after the closing ceremony.
Yet, despite these guidelines, brands can still have relevant conversations and capitalize on opportunities to own these moments, especially brands that sponsor athletes with standout performances. Some brands may leverage partnerships with athletes who did not make the team or retired Olympians to circumvent the Rule 40 barriers. Ultimately, though, brands need to be prepared to take cues from the natural storylines stemming from the games, create their own narratives and ride the wave of public sentiment, pride and enthusiasm where applicable.
Can we define what the indelible Olympic moment (or moments) will be, and can brands be agile, creative and relevant enough to weave that story effectively into a brand moment or call to action? There are many who think the Olympics should not be happening, especially given the state of emergency declared in Tokyo and the recent COVID-19 cases popping up among qualifying athletes in the Olympic Village. But as these games mark one of the first global sporting events since 2019, can brands use this as an opportunity to remind viewers the value of this historical event, so long as it’s executed safely?
As with many questions emerging over the past year and a half, only time will tell. And, while expecting the unexpected is the best chance brands have to go for gold, they can only help their case by attempting to connect with audiences and share relevant and compelling Olympic moments within the brand narrative.