3 Olympic Marketing Secrets

March 20, 2010

One of the world’s most recognized symbols is in my closet. No not Chanel or Coke, Gucci or Google, it’s the Olympic rings resting quietly on the back of my sky blue volunteer jacket. I expected to be blown away by athletes, especially the Paralympians, I didn’t expect to be blown away by branding.

As markets fragment and attention spans shrink, branding and design take on added significance. The Games remind us  that we when compete for attention every message needs thoughtful focus whether in text or textile.

I lived the Olympic/Paralympic brand from tip to zip.  Tip being the cheerful hair flattening tuque and zip being the zipper pull that bore the same crosshatching as the iconic blue/green wild/cityscape found on every fence, flag and crash pad. I was assigned  to VANOC’s (Vancouver Olympic Committee) Whistler Medal Plaza. While there I over heard high drama,  “Bravo 10, this is Bravo 8, Bravo 10 we have a white Caucasian male smoking a joint by the Portapotty closest to exit PSA 2.”). More importantly, I also witnessed three brand performance strategies at work.

1. True to You: The Games are essentially a franchise with each host city putting their brand spin on the event. Vancouver is a ‘green city’ not only because it is enviously snow free but because people eat more tofu here than anywhere in the nation. Okay I made that up, but it could be true. After all, this province’s citizens chained themselves to old growth trees to save them; they have the criminal pardons to prove it.

Vancouver’s vibe is green geographically and ideologically. The west was one of the last provinces to be ‘conquered.’ More than any other province, they realize the national anthem would be more accurate if we sang ‘Oh Canada, our home on native land’ instead of ‘our home and native land.’

2. Ride The Vibe: In addition to partnering with four founding First Nations to host the Olympics, Vancouverites have a slightly different relationship with the natural world than let’s say New Yorkers. The only wild life Manhattanites see is Lindsey, Britney and Paris without underpants. ( I could make clear cut comments but discretion is the better part of valor). BC folk might also see whales on their way to work and I’m not talking about people leaving an all you can eat breakfast buffet.

The VANOC design team blended a wild and urban vibe in its iconic images. Helicopters had dragonfly wings, “With Glowing Hearts’ had skate blade etchings running through each word and undulating blue waves had computer mother board patterns rising and falling like tech stocks. BC tries to live ‘green’ and so it is fitting that VANOC chose hip, organic imagery and a mission that espoused sustainability.

3. Channel Pablo: As I traveled the Sea to Sky highway from Vancouver to Whistler, I was struck by how perfectly VANOC’s design team replicated the eminent colour palate of Canada’s west coast. Looking left and right one sees bright blue sky, ocean then lakes, shocking white snow against verdant green Douglas firs and dark grey, spiky mountains. Four colours: blue, white, green, dark grey/black. These were the colors of the games. (Even when it was raining there were still four colours: light grey, grey, dark grey, black. Kinda like falling inside an Ansel Adams photograph.)

If you are engaged in a branding exercise, it is wise to stop, see and sense what surrounds you. Channel Pablo Picasso. He said “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” What would a child-like mind see? Powder white, coastal green, wave blue? People revolting against environmental degradation? Wander and wonder around to embrace your brand’s authenticity.

Confessions of an Olympic Smurf

March 18, 2010

I went to the Olympics because I was ticked off. I was sitting in my friend’s living room watching Vancouver’s Opening Ceremonies in London, Ontario asking myself why the heck I wasn’t there. While I know the Olympics is an expensive game for the few, it still manages to inspire the many. I count myself among those who succumb to the athlete’s triumph against all odds storyline despite the ideological and ethical challenges the Games present. (I am not the only one who noticed that someone scooped up all the homeless people.)

I flew to Vancouver and then I flew back. On Friday March 5th, I applied online to be a volunteer at the Paralympics. The next day I was interviewed, and faster than you can say sledge hockey, I was back in Whistler receiving a uniform and role: Team Leader at the Whistler Medals Plaza, God help me. I knew nothing and no one. My neighbour’s son, Whistler lawyer Sholto Shaw, kindly opened his home so I had a bed and a host. Hire him: he has the decency gene, looks like a movie star and eats whole wheat pasta. I know I peeked in his cupboard. (Plus, his mom told me he’s been voted Whistler’s best lawyer for four years.) Check him out at

It was time for my first meeting but I was afraid to put on my Smurf blue uniform; the minute you do people ask you questions and questions were all I had. The next day, armed with the knowledge of a gnat, I dressed for my first shift. As I put my arm inside the left sleeve of the jacket, I noticed the inner mesh pocket perfectly designed to hold the Team 2010 notebook. Sewn on top of the Velcro closure were the words “With Glowing Hearts/Desplus Brillants Exploits.”

The Olympics are all about wow and here, in this tiny moment, was mine. I didn’t know why I felt compelled to return to Vancouver. Maybe it was the unbridled joy and strategic resistance on Vancouver’s usually chillaxed streets (thank you activists for your tent city). Maybe it was because every time  I saw volunteers, they were so genuinely delighted to be of service that I wanted to join. Maybe the answer was this literal tagline “With Glowing Hearts.”

I watched the Paralympic Opening Ceremonies and  saw athletes in wheelchairs clearly loving walking in even if they had to roll. A few walked like my Dad, a leg swung out from the hip instead of bending at the knee. It was in the presence of that absent moment, the body’s engineering miracle of a knee bend that I was reminded of him.

Polio gave my father a broken walk. The older he got the more he fell and the more he fell the more he broke. Not his spirit, he never complained. I grew up in the shadow of this courageous man without realizing it until he and his shadow were gone. I had come back to give back; just don’t ask me where to park.

The Rewards of Authenticity

March 8, 2010

Kathryn Bigelow didn’t compromise. She and her team made the movie they wanted to make. All guts and glory ‘The Hurt Locker’ delivered gritty realism and reaped six Oscars.  While ‘Avatar’s’ 3-D world left me motion sick and longing to be seven feet tall, skinny and able to stop global environmental destruction, the Hurt Locker won because it was raw. We buy pretend (Avatar is the highest grossing film of all time) but we reward authentic.

When Staff Sgt Williams James, played by Jeremy Renner, pulls a string and raises five bombs from the sandy street, encircling him like a pinwheel, he simply says ‘oh boy.’ Surrounded,  he becomes a metaphor of our time. In the battle he finds himself and in the grocery store of a million choices that don’t matter, he is lost.

We are surrounded by bombs just under the surface. The environment, war, billions of people who live on less than a dollar a day, mounting deficits, profound human rights violations and overly optimistic politicians. While Paris Hilton’s pooch sleeps on a more comfortable bed than Haitians could hope for, Chile quakes and finds itself hoping the world isn’t suffering from compassion fatigue.  Films like The Hurt Locker, The Cove, Precious and even Avatar in its own way, challenge us to face what’s real and deal. Bravo, bravo, now let’s be brave.

Share The Podium

March 6, 2010

No one achieves anything of consequence alone. Every Olympian employs an army of physios and equipment pros, technique coaches and sports shrinks. The classiest Olympians don’t just own the podium they share it. Olympic Ice Dance Champion Tessa Virtue thanked her physiotherapist first, then her family and then Skate Canada. Who makes you look good?

Sharing the podium is a time-honoured tradition in sports. After the medals have been given and the national anthem played, the gold medalist invites the silver and bronze winners to join them on the top of the podium. I have done this, been the climee and the invitee. It’s a nice moment if you remember not to fall off the suddenly tiny podium, which I have done.

Sharing the podium is critical. Tom Raith and Donald Clifton PhD in How Full is Your Bucket, Positive Strategies for Work and Life by Gallup Press (2005) state that “Praise is rare in most workplaces. One poll found that an astounding 65% of Americans reported receiving no recognition for good work in the past year.”

I witnessed a great example of how to share the podium from Canada’s beloved sportscaster Brian Williams. Williams was the head of CTV’s Olympic coverage. When the Olympics were over and half the planet was in Vancouver airport, I heard Williams’ voice and followed it to say thanks for his coverage. I wasn’t alone. He was being thanked by everyone in the The Maple Leaf lobby. Instead of sucking up the praise like a Dyson vacuum cleaner, he shared the podium. He mentioned two women’s names (I had no pen but if someone knows who they are let me know) and said that they are the ones who made it all possible.

Then the sixty-two-year-old, dressed in jeans and a navy sports jacket bounded up the stairs, two at a time leaving the rest of us knowing why we love him so much.

Good is no longer good enough. The goal is perfection and the path that takes us there leads to excellence.
Louise B. Karch