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.


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