Half the planet’s population is expected to watch at least some part of the London 2012 Olympic Games. With that reach it’s not exactly news that brands want to associate themselves with what is the daddy of all sporting events. Equally, it comes as no surprise that the Games organisers, having trousered half a billion from selling exclusive rights to advertisers and broadcasters, are keen to protect that investment. But do they really have to go to the lengths of putting tape over the non-wet areas of urinals and toilets in Games venues to ensure that no unauthorised brands get any exposure?

That could be a step too far in the opinion of Chris Robichaud, CEO of LA-based communications agency PMK*BNC. Speaking at the London launch of a pamphlet entitled Beyond The Games: How Popular Culture Is Shaped By A Mega-Event, he observed that the UK government has passed legislation giving sponsors exceptional protection, a Brand Protection Task Force has been set up and guidelines have even been issued to athletes warning against commercial messages in tattoos. In addition, spectators won’t be allowed to bring their own picnics but will have to buy food from approved outlets, and there are restrictions on what information they can send to friends or websites from inside stadia to avoid breaching broadcasters’ rights.

But this is set to be the first ‘transmedia’ Games. At the time of the Beijing Games in 2008, social media sites weren’t the phenomena they have now become; back then smartphones hadn’t achieved anything like their current penetration.  So how are organisers going to police what athletes say on Twitter or what pictures spectators post on Facebook? Would they really ban Usain Bolt over the content of a Tweet to his followers? In an attempt to keep control, the IOC has issued six pages of social media guidelines to competitors and set up a social media hub just for them, but will athletes bother to read them or use it?

Robichaud suggested that how the IOC reacts to these issues will redefine the idea of exclusive rights for future events, and not just for sports sponsorship but for areas like entertainment as well. His colleague Michael Nyman concurred, saying these Games were a ‘tipping point’ for social media and future organisers would have to change the way they interact.

Robichaud went on to describe the London 2012 Games as the ‘ultimate social media petri dish’. As well as the above issues, he pondered just how people will interact with TV coverage, broadcasters’ websites and specialist websites. There are 5,600 accredited journalists attending the Games, but there will be a total of around 22,000 present. And that’s before you start counting bloggers and all those people contributing to specialist sites and Twitter hashtags. Broadcasters such as the BBC have pledged to make all events available, but how in-depth will they go for niche events? Games coverage will be coming via many channels and specialist sites have an opportunity to become definitive for certain sports, with all that implies for associated brands. Although, as Robichaud also pointed out, ‘niche’ is a media term rather than an audience one: the most popular sportsman in social media terms is a Chinese table tennis player.

The Games have always had the potential to make stars of individuals but 2012 could see the rise of the global superstar, as spectators connect directly with athletes via social media. And that in turn raises interesting questions about nationalism. Where once people supported Team GB, might they now be a part of Team Bolt?

Robichaud conceded that there are extremes of feelings about the games in London but as a marketer he enthused about the opportunities for brands to be part of the conversations that accompany such mega-events and urged a focus on popular culture and trends around the Games. And that, really, is what his business is all about: recognising that popular culture is a consumer ‘passion point’, a conversation starter and a sign of the times; making brands relevant to that is what he does.


The Olympic Games is but one example of what Robichaud called a mega-event, albeit the largest such in the world.  Michael Nyman, chairman of PMK*BNC, introduced a number of panellists to talk about the Games and other mega-events they have been involved with.

Asked what would be ‘the story behind the story’ of the Games, Anthony Noguera of Ai singled out potentially negative coverage by some UK tabloids, while Mark Prescott of Spark opined that there would be at least one catastrophic transport failure and how that was dealt with would affect global perceptions of London and the UK. On the issue of brand-led youth marketing at the Olympics, Noguera suggested that the unofficial brands were the ones to watch and mentioned that Nike had bought a pub on the borders of the main arena. MTV’s David Mogendorff cautioned that disillusioned youth were capable of organising against brands and had done so in the past.

O2’s Holly Marshall felt the UK was only now reaching the ‘wake up and smell the coffee’ moment, as users bombarded her daily seeking reassurances about the network’s functioning during the Games. She outlined the major investment being undertaken and some of the ways in which the brand was meeting customer needs, one example being a short-term handset rentals package for incoming businesses for the duration of the Games. She also trailed the launch of an O2 experiential attraction during the Games.

Nicolas Maurer of Beiersdorf related how Nivea had come to sponsor New Year’s Eve celebrations in New York’s Times Square. This mini mega-event featured Nivea’s lip balm and a celebration of the kiss: a brand in the right place at the right time and a message that resonated with the audience, said Maurer. He also explained how the brand got the singer Rihanna on board to celebrate the brand’s centenary and sponsored her tour, resulting in an extraordinary leap in the number of Nivea’s Facebook fans from 150,000 to 3.5m. His advice on mega-events: you need great planning, but also the agility to go with the flow.