This piece originally appeared in PRWeek.
Without a doubt, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics have made history and will be remembered for a series of extraordinary firsts. First to be held without spectators. First to include skateboarding, surfing, and other sports added to appeal to the next generation of viewers. First for many countries to medal. They are also the Games called by some “the most inclusive Olympics ever” and the “TikTok Games.” And, perhaps most absurdly, hosted in 2021 but still carrying the name of its original 2020 timeline in a stark reminder that these Olympics are far different than originally envisioned.
In light of these firsts, marketers were forced to reevaluate whether the Olympic Games still held the same “brand equity” in the eyes of global audiences. But more existentially, we asked: should brands continue to harness the power of Olympic sport that’s still (and will continue to be) reeling from the pandemic, leadership gaffes and criticism of a culture that puts profit before people?
Our Edelman Trust Barometer Special Report: Trust, The New Brand Equity showed us that brands have a responsibility to act beyond their business and to help change culture. If the question is should brands continue to engage with the Olympics as a cultural moment to drive growth and impact despite the challenges and changes, the answer is yes.
There were some clear, and early, engagement wins for the Games. On the ground in Japan, sentiment shifted substantially from overwhelming negative pre-Games to positive, with the opening ceremonies garnering the highest viewership in Tokyo and the surrounding regions since 1964. This undercurrent of enthusiasm was powerful and extended to the Gen Z and Millennial audiences who ushered forth new methods of engagement with the Games, utilizing platforms like TikTok to reinvigorate the traditional and linear, viewing experience. Nowhere was this more powerful than India, where this audience emerged as a rapidly growing consumer of the Games with the biggest digital engagement of any country, according to the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS).
With these early wins, and perhaps as a result of them, this year’s Games unlocked new learnings when it comes to engaging stakeholders in the future.
Omnichannel is a must
First, the Games firmly reinforced the fact that brand campaigns must be omnichannel. In the past, sponsors led with in-person, in-country experiences in addition to their advertising. Exceeding expectations, NBC was able to secure a record list of advertisers this year, but amidst the complexities of today’s media landscape and overall decline in TV viewership, metrics like “brand lift” dragged. Meanwhile, as a reflection of the behaviors we saw evolve during the pandemic, fans have engaged directly with Olympic content and athletes in record numbers through social channels and with a sharp increase in streamed content. We saw this in Ralph Lauren’s integrated sponsorship campaign that delivered their highest media impact value with a mix of owned and earned activations.
Any athlete has the potential for global influence
Second, and not surprisingly, athletes—people—are the real heroes of the Games. Their inspiration, humanity, and authenticity continue to build trust as brands’ most effective influencers. Athlete videos showcasing their Olympic swag on TikTok generated billions of views, but even non-sponsor brands were able to get in on the action. Luxury and culture-forward fashion brands one would rarely associate with sports or athleticism shined in the spotlight of newer events, like skateboarding, because of the freedom of expression associated with skate culture. Similarly, stocks of Japanese skateboard brands surged after gold medal wins in Japan. While the power of athlete endorsement is not a new phenomenon, the authenticity and visibility of it now exists in a new connected global landscape.
The Games are a conduit for cultural conversation
Finally, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics proved that this experience is so much more than medals and national pride. As the world’s largest sporting event, it is a platform to shine a spotlight on and address, as a global community, the societal issues that matter to people and in culture. We saw the topic of mental health rise to the forefront of global conversation, touching on athletes’ humanity and fairness, an athlete’s role and right to express political opinions, inclusivity and transgender representation, double standards for athlete uniforms, the culture of gender roles, and countless other societal and cultural topics beyond sport.
We know from our Trust, The New Brand Equity report that 86% of global respondents believe that brands are expected to take action on issues beyond their products and business, and that number is even more magnified among younger demographics—the very same who are changing the way the Olympics experience is consumed.
A brand’s message—and method of engagement—matters more than ever on this global stage. Brands that speak to universal truths, celebrate the underdogs, or raise awareness of critical social issues have the power to drive trust and, as a result, a host of tangible and intangible opportunities to drive growth. Now, and in the future, this is the mandate for brands that want to play in the Games.
Meghan Barstow is president of our Japan operations.