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Sponsorship, branding and commercialization of the 2016 Rio Olympics

The Olympic Games draw the attention of sport fans worldwide and now corporate brands and other commercial stakeholders tune in to monetize on Olympic-related marketing. These fans are enthusiastic in terms of following their favorite sports or sport stars. At the same time, this mega-event works as an opportunity to display the patriotic colors of your flag while enjoying the passionate context of sports. However, the modern Olympic Games also portray a visible billboard of different corporate brand logos on a global scale.

“The Olympic Games, at their core, are about athletes and athletic competition. But the Olympics have evolved into a much larger phenomenon that extends beyond the boundaries of sport. Propelled by the Olympic Movement, the term that describes the interrelationship among athletes, local/national Olympic committees, and related international federations (which are responsible for specific sports around the world), the Olympics have come to represent hope and prosperity – hope in the sense of a peaceful, better world energized by sport; and prosperity in the economic, social and political contexts.” (Davis, 2012, p. 1)

As illustrated in the citation above, the Olympic Games reflect an interesting spectacle characterized by much complexity given the vital role of the event in contemporary societies. In analyzing the event though the lenses of the junction between sport, business, entertainment and positive societal changes (e.g. CSR angles), the magnitude of the event leads to good creative and innovative options for athletes and corporate brands (sponsors) in the pre-, during- and post-Games activation phases.

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Photo: Official partners of the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The Olympic sports sponsorship landscape and new trends

This summer, the global sporting society concentrates on consuming a spectacular sporting mega-event: the Olympic Games. It is a sport product with tremendous global appeal and the event will reveal that fans (consumers) buy into the power of relevant and creative storytelling (Cortsen, 2016)

In alignment with other sporting mega-events, the Olympic Games have become a significant benchmark for how rights holders (the IOC, the various National Olympic Committees and the associated commercial partners of these entities) and commercial assets like athletes, sponsors and the media can join forces and move market shares and customers.

The Olympic Games act as a large stage for what reason the competition on and off the playing field is centered around the ability to deliver a gold-winning performance. Among other things, this refers to leveraging creative marketing (including sponsorship) ideas and innovative product designs that integrate the positive associations with the Olympic Games and/or the emotional equity, which is part of the cultural DNA of this sporting mega-event. In that sense, the event is a gigantic and supreme marketplace with the capability of exposing great sporting, fan and brand experiences through a constant production of top-notch storytelling and activation. Corporate brands seeking to buy into the sponsorship inventory concerning the Olympic Games should prioritize a competent approach to creating comprehensive brand experiences wrapped around the sporting competitions or the athletes during the Games and the related pre- and post-event phases.

With the opening ceremony and the start of the Olympic Games come new sport marketing and sport sponsorship trends. Just take a look at the creative and strategic approach of the opening ceremony in which social responsibility is stressed in order to influence our globe positively, e.g. planting trees, preventing global warming, promoting human compassion and making athletes take part in good actions. The Olympic movement seems to be visionary in the sense that the opening ceremony utilizes a global stage to promote the importance of solving global challenges. This motivates to engage in CSR-based partnerships. Brazil has been characterized by negative stories such as the Zika virus, the Petrobras scandal and its socio-economic problems for what reason it will be interesting to see if these positive initiatives listed above can bring about some counterbalance. Brazil needs to show that they can host a good Olympics to avoid a negative brand transfer for the official Olympic partners in an era where doping and other scandals have jeopardized the integrity of the Games.[/highlight] A good staging of the Games involves a good event on and off the playing field for what reason sponsors must find the right emotional touch points of the Games, e.g. the last event of sport stars like Usain Bolt, Michael Phelps and so on. Off the playing field, an important commercial factor is the new digital Olympic Channel and it is exciting to evaluate how this media platform performs in attracting fan attention, especially among younger segments.

Samsung has strived to build a sense of global unity in a CSR-approach to emphasize that there is no event more powerful than the Olympic Games to kickstart each of us to embrace our shared humanity and the positive change that comes when the world comes together, see video below.

The 2016 Rio Olympics will show us new global digital movements and content strategies tied to both official sponsorship rights and corporate brands working within the new relaxation zone of Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter as well as corporate brands looking to exploit the ‘grey zone’ of ambush marketing. Digital marketing has been a key tendency for sport marketers in the recent years. The 2012 London Olympics revealed the first ‘socialympics’ and social media tools also take a prominent position on the commercial agenda of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Such tools present a solid path to engaging sport fans in richer and more consequential ways through which emotional and passionate stories can be articulated while engaging fans in relation to central live moments of the Games. What sport can do is to build on the momentum created by sporting competitions. Therefore, the Rio Games emphasize that importance of real-time marketing and digital and social marketing teams will be alert to take part in the social conversations around the Games and the crucial moments in real time. This marketing approach highlights the importance of communicating with younger fan segments that want not only to be passively but also actively immersed and absorbed in the Games. The younger generations want to participate and they want to be engaged in what happens beyond the traditional mass media platforms (e.g. primarily television). Therefore, some innovative brands may incorporate virtual reality to produce wide-ranging across-the-board fan experiences. A popular way of articulating campaigns include CSR-related campaigns, which tell stories with a human touch and thus seek to exploit the Utilitarian Principle of the Olympic Games (i.e. the greatest good for the greatest number of people). Product focus is no longer the number one priority!

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Photos: Examples of activating The Coca-Cola Company’s #ThatsGold campaign.

The Coca-Cola company is the IOC’s most loyal sponsor and the brand runs a global campaign across 50 markets under the label #ThatsGold, which includes 79 athletes from 23 different countries. The Coca-Cola company has also placed a social media team in Rio, which constantly follows online social communication during the Olympic Games and thus produces content founded on important real time events within the Games – see video below for more inspiration.

The Coca-Cola Company also produced content associated with its ‘Taste the feeling’ campaign in which the brand compares the feelings of people’s everyday moments with Olympic athletes’ gold medal wins, see video below.



McDonald’s has produced a campaign in which the brand celebrates the spirit of friendship. This is at the heart of the Olympic values and McDonald’s gives kids from around the world a once in a lifetime chance to take part in the Opening Ceremony through McDonald’s Olympics Kids Program and the campaign is also boosted on Twitter via #FriendsWin, see video below for more inspiration. The campaign reminds me of what The Coca-Cola Company did for the 2014 Fifa World Cup.

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Photo: McDonald’s #FriendsWin campaign on Twitter.

The changed version of Rule 40

Rule 40 of the Olympic Charter deals with how athletes, coaches, trainers and officials participating in the Olympic Games should respond to commercial options during the Olympic Games and the relaxation of this rule offers Olympians new opportunities under the umbrella of this type of ‘acceptable ambush marketing’.

The latest version of Rule 40 has brought about ‘permissible ambush marketing’ which opens up for a wider range of corporate brands being involved in Olympic Games-related marketing. Now, non-official Olympic partners have been given consent to produce sport marketing promotions as long as these corporate brands do not violate Olympic rules, e.g. the inclusion of Olympic trademarks and symbols like the Olympic rings, wording like ‘gold medal’ and ‘Rio 2016’.

Rule 40 was put in place to protect the uniqueness of the Olympic Games by prohibiting over-commercialization and to underline the important focus on sporting performances and revenue generation for the global sporting movement (i.e. the majority of revenues is distributed to the development of athletes and sporting organization via the National Olympic Committees worldwide). The rule is in force during the Olympic Games period from the 27th of July until the 24th of August 2016 of the 2016 Rio Olympics, see here. The changed version of the rule still protects the Games from being over-commercialized but it has changed the sports sponsorship scene by giving non-official Olympic partners a piece of the commercial potential. Now, athletes are able to engage in online conversations about their sponsors provided that they have signed agreements with the IOC or National Olympic Committees and they do not violate Olympic intellectual property rights.

The latest edition of Rule 40 presents an interesting interplay and tradeoff between official Olympic partners and non-official Olympic partners – also in terms of size. For large non-official Olympic partner brands, e.g. Red Bull and Under Armour, it is a beneficial change as they have the resources to invest in running marketing campaigns from the start in March (campaigns must start no later than March) through August to get the Olympic timing benefit. The campaign had to be submitted in January, which is a disadvantage for smaller brands as they may have endorsement deals with athletes that are in risk of missing the qualification requirements for the Games. A large brand like Under Armour has endorsement deals with athletes whose Olympic qualification is not victim of the same degree of jeopardy. However, it is expected that smaller brands attempt to find creative ways to acknowledge and promote their athletes and these brands should see the edited rule as an opportunity rather than a problem as there are plenty of Olympic athletes that do not require the same investments as star athletes like Usain Bolt and Novak Djokovic.

With the text “Legacies like his are built over a lifetime like this. Michael Phelps returns for one last time.”, Under Armour produced Olympic Games content featuring the world-famous swim-star and Olympian swimming to the song The Last Goodbye while stressing the importance of  “It’s what you do in the dark, that puts you in the light.” and reinforced by #RuleYourself and #IWill.

For these reasons, the relaxation of rule could reduce the value for the official Olympic partners so these partners must also be on their toes to deliver now that competing brands can promote campaigns with Olympians during the Games. Nevertheless, my perspective is that as long as things are balanced (violation of intellectual property rights is a form of theft), this is a sound development because it levels the playing field and forces all brands to perform and thus adds positively to the total Olympic experience. Social media tends to be the platform that is most suited for ambush marketing that challenges the exclusive rights of the official top sponsors. Furthermore, more commercial activity generates positive buzz concerning the commercial events of the Olympics, which draws parallels to the Super Bowl in the way that focus is on the quality of marketing campaigns, e.g. TV commercials or good digital content. When all comes to all, the strength of a good story is that people can relate to it and it is important for brands to build the right associations with the Olympics when targeting specific segments. For instance, this can be done by applying aspects of sports psychology through which sport marketers engage in emotional branding that strive to take advantage of the positive identification with sports and entail some extent of authenticity.

Airbnb did well in paying to become the first ‘official’ alternative accommodations sponsor of the Olympic Games and got the opportunity to drive an authentic brand experience targeting Olympic visitors reinforced by #StayWithMe, see video above.

Simply, it is about driving emotional engagement with corporate values, products and target audiences in mind while keeping in mind that digital and social marketing become bigger and bigger. So does the transformation from traditional towards non-traditional marketing. Did anyone say CREATIVITY 🙂 Yes, I did and I am curious to follow the brands with Rule 40 waivers and how they perform.

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Photo: Australian sports wear company Skins introduced a creative approach by building a set of emojis called #Esportanto – the Games’ (un)official language.


Davis, J. A. (2012). The Olympic Games effect: How sports marketing builds strong brands. John Wiley & Sons.


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